The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers–Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood

1. Introduction to Habit 5: Empathic Listening and How it Saved Millions of Lives

The key to understanding others is empathic listening. It is an imaginative recreation of the state of mind behind the utterance you hear. One of the corollaries of empathic listening is the principle of understanding a person’s needs and motivations before offering a solution.

The importance of empathic understanding of your adversary can be illustrated through the example of how President Kennedy handled the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nuclear war could have broken out during the crisis which would have cost many millions of American and other lives. The basic breakthrough in the negotiations with the Soviet Union came from Tommy Thompson, a member of the State Department who happened to have been a previous Ambassador to the Soviet Union. A message came in that seemed to be asking for a diplomatic solution to the problem. Tommy Thompson could tell that it was from Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union.

Just as they were discussing the first message, however, a second message came through, this one a message that threatened military retaliation if the blockade around Cuba were maintained by the United States. The crucial question now became: which message should they respond to, the “soft” message or the “hard message”. Presumably one could make a case for answering the “hard” message since it was the one that most recently arrived and was therefore the “freshest”—maybe it superseded the first message.

Tommy Thompson urged President Kennedy to listen to the “soft” message. He empathized with Khrushchev whom he had known personally when he was an Ambassador. He argued that Khrushchev was trying to find a way out of the situation that would allow him to say that he saved Cuba from an invasion of the United States, and which would be acceptable to those in Russia who didn’t want to appear to back down without getting something in return.

President Kennedy listened to Tommy Thompson on the force of his argument and his convictions. Kennedy could very well empathize with Khrushchev because, although they were on the opposites of the Cold War, they were in a parallel situation with regards to their military. The military on each side were both pushing towards a military confrontation because they both had optimistic assessments of what the outcome would be. In the case of the U.S. military, they opted for a full-scale invasion of Cuba because they were told by the CIA that a) the warheads to the nuclear missiles spotted on Cuba had not yet been delivered to Cuba (hence the blockade of the island) and b) Soviet troop strength was insufficient to counter an American invasion if they acted now.

The Kremlin was also pushing Khrushchev towards a confrontation because they knew what the CIA did not: that the warheads WERE already on the island and the Soviet troop strength WAS sufficient to counter an American invasion. You see, the CIA got those two assumptions wrong, and the U.S. military strategy was primarily based on those two mistaken assumptions.

Kennedy decided to respond and offered to take our nuclear missiles out of Turkey that were pointed to the Soviet Union if Khrushchev would take the missiles out of Cuba that were pointed to the United States. A deal was reached, and a crisis was averted. If it hadn’t been averted, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post today, because I was a young boy staying with my grandfather in Miami, one of the most obvious first targets of the nuclear missiles from Cuba if there had been a nuclear war.

For more details, see my blog post on the Cuban Missile Crisis:

2. The Way of Persuasion

Once you have gone the extra mile and tried to understand others, how do you make yourself understood?

Stephen Covey uses the three-fold system or principles of rhetoric or the art of persuasion that the Greeks used:

These three principles are all part of a persuasive presentation. Most people focus on logos or logic but if you tap into the other side’s emotions, you will be much more successful. But you will never be successful if you haven’t built a relationship of trust so your ethos or character does matter.

Your technical skill as a project manager should give you logos; your interpersonal skill should give you the power of pathos, but it is your quality as a leader, not just a manager, that will give you the ethos to persuade those around you, and ultimately expand your Circle of Influence in your organization.

The next post will be on Habit 6: Synergize

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: