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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Information Professionals, Part 8

  • November 01 2004, 1:00am EST

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

This is the eighth in a series of articles on Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and what they mean for information professionals.

One of the hazards information professionals face is the constant demand to keep up with technology advances. Major technology innovations occur at a rate of one each 18 months, much faster than can be learned, assimilated and exploited effectively.

However, the real problem is that we can become so enamored with our technology that we can lose sight of the very knowledge-workers we must serve with our technology. It is easy to become more focused on "debugging" the defects (nonquality) in the technology than in sitting down to seek to understand not just our knowledge-workers' information requirements, but also the problems they face in accomplishing their value work.

Habit 5 is linked with Habit 4, "Think Win/Win." As part of public victory, to effectively influence people, we must understand them more than superficially; and to want to understand people says you care about them.

Management study: the higher the rank, the less effectively one listens.

Seek First to Understand: Basics of Communication - and Information Quality

How many people start information quality (IQ) projects by looking at the data, without first going to find the customers of the information, listening to the problems they have and finding out what quality characteristics are important to them?

The more I study and practice IQ, the more I realize that IQ is really about communication. Data and information are really the language of the enterprise. How well we name and define data, and how well we present it, affects the effectiveness of business communication. Here are some definitions:

Communication n 1: A process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs or behavior.

Communicate v 1: To transmit information, thought or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received or understood.1

Reading, writing, and speaking and listening are the four basic forms of communication. Covey points out that we have all spent years learning how to read, write and speak. Yet how much training have we had learning how to listen?2 Notice that even the definition of the word "communicate" is provided from the sender's perspective.

In college, I took nearly enough speech courses to have a minor in it, but there was nothing on the subject of listening. It was in my major, Psychology, that I was exposed to skills for listening. A psychologist cannot prescribe therapy for a patient if he or she cannot understand the patient's issues. Psychologists cannot understand patients without a truly empathetic form of listening.

Covey says that the habit "Seek First to Understand" requires a deep shift in our paradigm.3 After all, most of us seek to be understood first. Most people do not listen with the intention of really understanding. We often listen for the purpose of replying. We may "listen" while preparing our reply rather than paying attention. I know when I find myself thinking of a reply during someone's communication, I miss the sender's message.

Another barrier when listening is that we tend to hear messages through our own paradigms and interpret them through our life experience. When we do this, we distort the message and block real communication. With our extreme busyness, we can often pretend to listen, giving a perfunctory "Uh-huh" -- which generally indicates our inattention and kills any credibility we might have had. Selective listening is another problem in which we only hear parts of what someone says and miss the point completely or solve only part of a problem.

Empathetic Listening

Covey tells us that the highest form of listening is empathetic listening, which is more than "active" or "reflective" listening, or "listening with the intent to understand."4 Empathetic listening calls for one to try to get into the other person's frame of reference to understand where he or she is coming from.

Communications specialists tell us that the words we say constitute only approximately 10 percent of our communication.5 Thirty percent of our communication comes in the sounds or the way we say our message while 60 percent of our communication is in the form of body language. Empathetic listening requires us to read all the channels of signals being transmitted. In fact, there is an information quality message here. Covey says empathetic listening is powerful because "it gives you accurate data to work with."6 Covey is describing how to improve the process of listening to capture data accurately!

Listening Opportunities for Information Professionals

There are many places in which listening ability causes or contributes to initiative success or failure, including: gaining management commitment, understanding knowledge-worker information requirements, understanding assignments, creating IQ assessment tests, analyzing root cause, developing data models, defining work flow and determining screen or report design.

Making Empathetic Listening Happen

Several years ago, Frank Hernandez, CIO of Fremont Indemnity, came to me with a problem each of us would like to have. Frank told me he had trouble keeping his application developers busy. "Tell me more!" I appealed. He recounted how they had more than 90 percent of the operational data defined and in a shared database that was well designed and that changes were tightly controlled. There was minimal redundancy. Virtually every knowledge-worker at Fremont had a workstation or terminal access to the data.

Frank confessed they had no application backlog, and that they were having to go out and look for new applications. He gave me one of their productivity problems: one developer developed and delivered 42 application programs. In two weeks! "How?" I inquired. "Well," Frank recounted, "all of the data was there; all he needed to do was to extract the data and combine it into the reports the knowledge-workers needed." No interface programs. No new database files. No new create programs. Just creating the value basis of information, retrieving it and manipulating it.

"How have you been able to accomplish this?" I followed on. Frank shared how when he first got to Fremont, he would go into his senior VP's office every day saying, "Tell me your problems." Frank said, "When I felt I really understood what his drivers were, then I shared with him how we could help him. "Then what?" I asked. "Then I busted my butt to make it happen." Frank told me the other details that are simply good information management practices.

However, the key to this story is how you get management support and active participation. You do not go sell your initiative. You must listen to and understand the real needs of your management. Then, once you have fully understood their problems from their perspective, you will know how to communicate what you are trying to do in a way that will enable them to recognize that you are able to solve the real problems in ways management can understand.

Therefore, if you come to me and complain that you do not have management support, you can expect me to listen to you. Then I might ask you, "What have you done to understand your manager's business drivers and problems?"

Next month, we describe how to "Synergize" - the habit that increases value across the value chains.

What do you think? Let me know at

1. English, Larry. Improving Data Warehouse & Business Information Quality, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999, p. 90.
2. Covey, Stephen. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989, p. 238.
3. Ibid., p. 239.
4. Ibid., p. 240.
5. Ibid., p. 241.
6. Ibid.

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