Stephen Covey’s Four Autobiographical Responses

I’m trying to become a more effective and empathic listening, but inside the classroom and outside the classroom.  One of the things I really try focusing on is asking follow-up questions and not always say the usual, “oh, really? Interesting! Ok.”  One of my friends from Australia called me out on a short, five-day vacation three-years-ago about that and said, “you’re not evening listening to me.”  – OOPS!

This is the follow-up from Empathic Listening (and podcast), so be sure to check that out before you check this one.

Now onto a very long blog and podcast!

Four Autobiographical Responses

“We evaluate – we either agree or disagree; we probe – we ask questions from our own frame of reference ; we advise – we give counsel based on our own experience;  or we interpret – we try to figure people out, to explain their motives, their behavior, based on our own motives and behavior.” – Stephen Covey

So, as human being, these responses come naturally to us.  We are deeply scripted in our own lives and compare others’ lives to ours.  However, how do they affect our ability to really understand?

Also, probing is playing twenty questions.  Are you the boyfriend, spouse, husband, wife, boyfriend and girlfriend who doesn’t know how to apply effective listening skills and probe instead?

Let’s look at this from an example in Stephen Covey’s book….

“How’s it going, son?”


“Well, what’s been happening lately?”


“So what’s exciting in school?”

“Not much.”

“And what are your plans for the weekend?”

“I don’t know.”

These 1-3 word answers explain them all.  Sure, we have this in terms of initiating conversations with women.  I’m quick to stop the conversation if this happens, but this isn’t about “bar” pick-ups – it’s rather about family members.

It seems as if he/she doesn’t even stay in a house, but more a hotel.  He never shares anything from within and never opens up.

If he does, his would just hit him with the “I told you so’s?”

So, to many, seek first to understand becomes the most exciting of all the Seven Habits.

Let’s take a look at a typical conversation between a father and a teenage son.  Look at the father’s words in regards to the four different responses I’ve written above.

“Boy, Dad, I’ve had it! School is for the birds!”

“What’s the matter, Son?” (probing).

“It’s totally impractical.  I don’t get a thing out of it.”

“Well, you just can’t see the benefits yet, son.  I felt the same way when I was your age.  However, moving on and later on it became very helpful. Hang in there.” (advising)

“I’ve given it ten years of my life! Why the heck do I need to learn ‘x + y’ to become an auto-mechanic?”

“An auto-mechanic? You’ve got to be kidding me.” (evaluating)

“No, I’m not.  Look at Joe.  He’s quit school.  He’s working on cars and makes a lot of money now.”

“That might be the case now, but in several years, he will be wishing he’d stay in school.” (advising)

“I don’t know.  Joe’s got a pretty good set up.”

“Look, son, have you really tried?” (probing, evaluating)

“I’ve been in high school for ten years and it’s been a waste.”

“You’re at a great school.  Give them some credit.” (advising, evaluating)

“Well, the other guys feel the same way I do.”

“Do you realize how difficult it was for my mother and I to get you there? You can’t quit when you’ve come this far.” (evaluating)

“I know you’ve sacrificed, Dad. But it’s just not worth it.”

“Look, maybe if you spent more time doing your homework and less time in the front of the TV…..” (advising, evaluating)

“Never mind! I don’t want to talk about this anyway.”

Boom! And just like that, the son’s emotional bank account is overdrawn because his father instead, plays the victim role and starts blaming his habits at home to why he’s not enjoying school.  What’s more, he said “doing more homework instead of watching tv,” like that’s going to get him more interested in Y = Mx + b.

In the podcast, I play role-reversal and do it from the teenager’s standpoint

“Can you see how limited we are when we try to understand another person on the basis of words alone, especially when we’re looking at that person through our own glasses? Can you see how limiting our autobiographical responses are to a person who is genuinely trying to get us to understand his autobiography?

You will never be able to truly step inside another person, to see the world as he sees it, until you develop the pure desire, the strength of personal character, and the positive Emotional Bank Account, as well as the empathic listening skills to do it. – Stephen Covey

So Stephen Covey then talks about the four developmental stages.

First, mimic what they say.  This is the skill taught in “active” and “reflective” listening.

Example: “Boy, Dad…I’ve had it! School is for the birds!”

You repeat, “you’ve had it.  You think school is for the birds.”

You simply repeated what your son said.  You didn’t evaluate, probe, advise, or interpret.  You’ve just shown that you’re paying attention. 

Second, rephrase content.

Example: “Boy, dad…I’ve had it! School is for the birds!”

“You don’t want to go to school anymore.”

This time, you’ve put his meaning into your own words. Now you’re thinking about what he said, mostly with the left side, the reasoning, logical side of the brain. 

The third stage bring the right brain into operation.  You reflect feeling.

Example: “Boy, dad…..I’ve had it! School is for the birds!”

“You’re feeling really frustrated about school.”

Frustration is the feeling; school is the content.  You’re using both sides of your brain to understand both sides of his communication. 

Now, what happens when you use the fourth stage of empathic listening skills is really incredible.  As you authentically seek to understand, as you rephrase content and reflect feeling, you give him psychological air.  You also help him work through his own thoughts and feelings.  As he grows in confidence of your sincere desire to really listen and understand, the barrier between what’s going on inside him and what’s actually being communicated to you disappears.

Stage four and extras are in the podcast.


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