Nov 23, 2015
The following post is part of a series highlighting Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and how it can apply to students in medical school. The series will stretch out over seven weeks, giving each habit the spotlight for one individual post.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
Perhaps none of the seven habits relate to medical school more than the fifth habit: seek first to understand, then to be understood. Covey’s quote above says it all – many people only have two stages of conversation. They’re either speaking or they’re preparing to speak, both of which are filtered through their own personal paradigm. In theory, listening should be a fundamental part of all forms of communication, but most people become too absorbed with their side of the conversation that they completely ignore the other side. The reality is that many people hear, but few truly listen. And if they do in fact listen, it is for all the wrong reasons. That’s what the fifth habit is all about: understanding why and how to listen for the right reasons.
Listening with the intent to reply, as opposed to listening with the intent to understand, can be extremely dangerous – especially for a doctor. It means you are prescribing a solution before you have fully diagnosed the problem.
You wouldn’t prescribe a certain medication merely because a patient is complaining about chest pain, would you? Of course not. You would ask follow-up questions, perform tests, and do whatever it is you can to thoroughly understand the problem first.
Covey refers to this type of listening as “empathic listening.” It simply means listening to understand – to really understand. It means listening not so that you can pass an exam, but listening so that you truly understand the material – passing the exam will come with that.
Learning to listen empathically is not something you will learn to do overnight. It takes time, effort, and focus. Think about it – we spend years learning how to read, write, and speak at a young age; but we’re never taught how to listen. Learning how to listen the right way is mostly about breaking bad habits you have formed from listening the wrong way. However, if you make a conscious effort to truly listen, you will be a much more effective medical student, a much more effective doctor, and a much more effective communicator in general.