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We all want to be seen, heard, and understood

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Principles of empathic communication

One of the most memorable movie scenes for has come from Super 8, a curious film about an alien invasion made by Spielberg. At one point, the orphaned boy is watching an old film of himself on a swing and his mother comes to greet him. “She made me feel like I was seen.” It speaks of a deep truth. We all want to be seen and heard, understood and appreciated. We all tend to judge the world the way we are. “We have such a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice. But we often fail to take the time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first” (Covey, 1989/2004, p. 249). We all want to be seen. So many times, we focus on the problem when we would do much better to focus on the person. What does this person in front of me really need. If I solve that, I may be well on the way to solving the problem that had me so worried.

Character and communication

There are four basic modes of communication: reading, writing, speaking, and listening (Valamis, n.d.). The ability to do them well is a critical skill that enables effectiveness. So much of interpersonal relations is communication. How often have we seen people in conflict, only to realize that they did not truly understand each other? We can achieve so much by improving communication.

Empathic listening can do so much to improve communication. So often, we can hear others, but it is like having a game on in the background as we are focused on some other task. Or perhaps more stereotypically, we are “listening” to somebody as we are really focused on watching a game. Empathic listening is “listening with intent to understand. [It means] seeking first to understand, to really understand” (Covey, 1989/2004, p. 253).

Satisfied needs do not motivate. It’s only the unsatisfied need that motivates” (Covey, 1989/2004, p. 254). How often do we try to sell our idea, without worrying about what the person in front of us needs. Then we are surprised at our frustration when there is no emotional response.

Four autobiographical responses

We tend to look at the world through our own point of view. We can be very self-centered as we look at others. We evaluate, probe, advise or interpret. When we evaluate, we either agree or disagree. When we probe, we ask questions based on our own experience. When we advise, we give advice according to our own experience. When we interpret, “we try to figure people out, to explain their motives, their behavior, based on our own motives and behavior” (Covey, 1989/2004, p. 257).

For empathic listening, the focus is put on the other person. We can mimic content, repeat what the other person has said. This ensures that we are really hearing the same thing the other person is saying. When we rephrase the content, we are putting forth our own interpretation and making sure it matches the intent of the other person. It is very rewarding when our re-wording actually makes the other person feel understood. Finally, we reflect the feeling. When our feelings are in tune and we are giving the proper content, the other person feels understood. This is empathic listening.

It is important that this is all done with authenticity. No one wants to be manipulated.

Understanding and perception

As we learn to listen deeply to other people, we “will discover tremendous differences in perception. [We] will also begin to appreciate the impact that these differences can have as people try to work together in interdependent situations” (Covey, 1989/2004, p. 265). This helps us to truly see the facts.

This gives us a clearer view of the situation, and we make ourselves more valuable to the other person. No one wants advice from someone who is perfect and far off. The more we can make our nearness and closeness felt, the more credibility we build up with the person.

Then seek to be understood

After the empathic listening and getting to understand the other side, we are finally in a position to share our own view on the subject. We have proven that we are interested in the person, as well as solving the problem. We have built up credibility, so we do not appear to be pushing an agenda that the other person does not really want. We are able to argue from a position of strength.

One of the most powerful places for this process to take place is in one-on-one conversations. A mighty example is the encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus on the roof during the night. Nicodemus was a powerful religious figure. He was a member of the Sanhedrin. His “party line” did not allow much space for Jesus, but he was intrigued by this person. Jesus knew that Nicodemus wanted something more from life, but he was too timid or it would be too compromising to simply follow Jesus. So, he met him, in secret, and talked through all of his doubts. How is that for seeking to understand before seeking to be understood?


Covey, S. R. (1989/2004). The seven habits of highly effective people. Powerful lessons in personal change. Simon and Schuster.

Valamis. (n.d.). Types of communication.

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