First Understand, Then Be Understood


Poor communication in the workplace causes many pharmacists to feel misunderstood by their patients, bosses, and coworkers.

This is the fifth part of an 8-part series called “7 Habits of Highly Effective Pharmacists.”

Poor communication in the workplace causes many pharmacists to feel misunderstood by their patients, bosses, and coworkers.

The best way to influence others—whether at work or home—is through your conduct. Think about someone who influenced you to do something, like buy a house or get married. There’s a relationship there that probably inspired some openness and trust in you. The other individual in the relationship did that by creating trust over time—and probably by listening to you.

Listen Up

Habit 5, called “First Understand, Then Be Understood,” is based on listening.

My wife, Megan, and I struggle with communication, as many married couples do. Just this morning, she was saying she hasn’t been feeling well in the past few days. She was asking me what medicines she should take and telling me some things she’s already tried, but I wasn’t listening.

Think about the last communication you had with someone before reading this. Were you only listening in preparation to speak? That’s what I was doing this morning. My mind was in other places, and I wasn’t empathizing with my wife; I was spouting off my perspective.

Sometimes, Megan simply wants me to listen and be understanding. She needs me to focus on what she’s saying and not what I’m thinking. I realized it’s easy to overlook her perspective and think solely about what I want to say rather than listen.

When I finally took the time to understand my wife, it changed how I understood the situation. I could focus on her rather than on figuring out how to solve the problem as quickly as possible. Believe it or not, taking the time to understand can actually be a time-saver.

Understand First

To summarize Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the key to effective communication is to understand others before they understand you.

Sometimes, it’s difficult for me to empathize with my wife because I often assume she thinks like I do. In reality, she doesn’t think the same way that I do—which is good.

Typically, there are 4 ways we respond to our partners in conversations:

1. Evaluate why we agree or disagree. In my example, I was evaluating why I disagreed with my wife and her conclusions.

2. Probe and ask questions, but that’s usually because we want to understand the motives from our own frame of reference.

3. Give advice, but that’s often based on our own experience rather than an understand of the other individual's perspective.

4. Interpret others based on our own paradigm. However, when you see someone’s issue through their own lens, you can understand them better.

Practice Makes Perfect

It takes some social intelligence to really understand. I try to practice reflective listening by telling the listener what I think I’m hearing. This automatically signifies you’re listening and makes the speaker feel understood.

Reflective listening also helps slow down the conversation. If you’re in a heated discussion in the pharmacy, it can help calm down an angry patient.

I aim to reflect the feeling in the context of what I just heard. I might say something like, “You were frustrated with me because you thought I wasn't trying to understand you and I was opposed to some of your solutions for the problem.”

Typically, reflective listening deepens the conversation by lowering your conversation partner’s defenses as you reveal your understanding. It requires much practice to put your partner first and discipline to listen.

A Rare Skill

Listening is a rare skill few individuals take the time to learn. Learning it, though, can have some awesome career implications.

When looking for employment, jobseekers often think about how the job can make them happy or how they can get the most out of the opportunity. If more job applicants would first understand the employer and their needs, they’d really set themselves apart.

I was once hiring for an open position. I interviewed 4 candidates, and the one I hired was the one who tried to understand me first. He asked pointed questions about the problems I was facing to figure out what he needed to do in order to do the best job possible. By doing so, he put himself second—and landed the job.

Being Understood

Humans are emotional, social, and logical beings—but many of our decisions are based on emotion. From Greek philosophy, you may remember ethos, pathos, and logos. These come into play when we communicate:

· Ethos is your personal credibility, integrity, and the trust you inspire in others. As a pharmacist, it could be the fact you’re working behind the counter, a lab coat, tie, name tag, the way you carry yourself, or the warm way you interact with patients, clients, and bosses.

· Pathos is the empathetic part of your being, or your feelings.

· Logos is the logic or reasoning behind your presentation. I often mistakenly start with the logic behind an argument or by trying to persuade someone.

To gain someone’s trust, we must establish our credibility. In pharmacy, you can easily inspire trust by learning about your patients and acknowledging they have family, hobbies, and a life.

Putting It to Work

Think about ethos first. If the individual doesn’t trust you, build it by asking questions and finding out more about them. Then, move to pathos by acknowledging feelings they or you may have. Logic is the least important part of this process.

If you think about it, everyone knows smoking is bad. But, if you’re telling someone to stop smoking and they don’t trust you, they won’t want to change.

In your next personal interaction, try to understand the individual first. Don't try to figure out their motives, question their ability to do something, or advise them. Ask them a lot of questions and reflect back to them what you’re hearing. Just listen—and you might understand.

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