The 5th Habit of Highly Effective College Instructors

Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

Stephen Covey’s 5th Habit of Highly Effective People addresses an important aspect of interpersonal communication.  Covey begins with a claim that really applies to me.  He says, “We have such a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice.  But we often fail to take the time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first,” (p. 237).  As with Covey’s other habits, this one has some unique applications for college faculty members.  I will begin with one of the most important things college instructors need to understand about understanding.  Covey doesn’t cover this.

Understanding of the First Kind

There is so much to learn, and new instructors, particularly new adjuncts, have precious little time to learn it all.  I make a serious effort to help all my new adjuncts understand everything that is important for them to know.  But even with the detailed checklist I provide them and 45 minutes to an hour of my eloquent oratory, there is no way anyone could absorb all the information. Or, as some of you may be thinking, maybe I am a really poor teacher.

I explain it this way to each new adjunct.  “Even though you are the first adjunct ever to stay awake through my entire presentation,” I kid with them, “I don’t  expect you to understand, to really have learned, everything you need to know.  Keep this list handy and refer to it regularly so you remember my expectations and those of the college.  Then ask me for advice if you aren’t positive how to fulfill those expectations.”  Let me give you an example of how I hope my adjuncts heed my advice.  I would appreciate it if you would play the role of the adjunct.  Thanks!

A student comes to you and requests an “Incomplete.”   The student has a compelling reason for wanting an extension.  You want to help the student, and this is a great opportunity to demonstrate your willingness to go the extra mile for your students.  What do you do?  Do you agree to award the Incomplete and figure you will work out the details when you get a chance?  Not if you aren’t positively, absolutely, 100 percent certain you know your college policy and procedure.  You look at the checklist the dean gave you.  Yup, it’s on the list.  You look in your handbook.  Yikes, it isn’t covered.  (You should do a “double yikes” if you lost your handbook.)  You could ask another faculty member, but you can’t assume that person understands the rules.  Ask your dean, associate dean, curriculum coordinator, or whoever hired you.  My experience is that the new instructors are far better off exposing their inexperience to the dean than guessing.

One last comment about the first kind of understanding.  If your dean has not already done so, ask him or her about things that sometimes trip up new faculty.  This is the lessons-learned approach.  Or ask what are the most important policies and procedures you need to know, the ones you have to get absolutely right the first time.  He may say, “Everything,” if he is a wise guy like me.  He may completely be serious. This is still better than the ostrich approach – you know, burying your head in the sand.

Now back to some serious advice.  Let’s get into Covey’s advice and how it applies to college instructors.

Understanding of the Second Kind

Stephen Covey explains that listening is the key to understanding, but not just any kind of listening will work.  Even the Active Listening techniques that some of us have learned won’t do.  Covey calls the right kind of listening Empathic Listening and says, “The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually,” (p. 240).

Did I hear you mumbling something?  Do you see problems with this empathic listening thing?  What?  You have 279 students in your lecture, and there is no way you can empathically listen to every one.  Of course not, you can’t possibly talk to each and every one.  Save empathic listening for when students come to you with problems.

You still have a problem?  You say you are a private person, and you respect other people’s privacy.  You don’t want to get emotional with your students?  I understand, but sometimes your students will get emotional with you.  Sometimes they will tell you more than you want to know, at least that’s my experience.  Once, within minutes after meeting a female student, she told me about the restraining order on her husband and pulled up her pant leg to show me a scare where he cut her with a knife.  Another student once told me she had a terminal illness.  Other students have broken down crying over personal matters, ones that I didn’t always understand, but I tried.  Let me give you an example of what can happen.

Several months ago a student came into my office to complain about the grades his instructor was giving him.  As I always “attempt” to do, I let the student do most of the talking.  If I had addressed the specifics immediately, our conversation might have ended in five or ten minutes with me saying something like, “Okay then, I will talk to your instructor.”  Let me interject that I am not a counselor, but I realize that I often need to think like one.  As the student continued to talk, he started putting himself down.  He told me he was dumb or stupid, I forget his exact words.  He said something about failing at everything he tries.  He sounded like he was giving up all hope of being successful. He talked about his wife divorcing him. I realized that I had a very sensitive situation on my hands.  I asked myself, “Is he depressed? Might he hurt himself?”  I answered myself, “I think so, and maybe.”  I told the student that I wanted to get one of my colleagues involved, and said, “Let’s take a walk.”  I walked him to the Counseling office, debriefed a counselor, and then escorted my student into the counselor’s office.  Was I effective? I think so.  I admit that I don’t always listen empathically, but I thank God that I did that time.

Okay, you are right; these situations are few and far between.  Why do you need to listen empathically to your students?  Would you like a more practical application? I will illustrate by sharing something a tutor once taught me.  If a student is struggling with a math problem, she would not show the student how to solve the problem.  She would ask the student to solve the problem; and, quite often, the student would respond, “I don’t know how.”  “Well just try,” she would say.  It might take a little Socratic questioning, but she would get the student started.  If the student solved the problem correctly, she affirmed the result.  If the student made a mistake, she would point to the specific error and ask, “Why did you do that?”  By getting the student to talk, and by listening, she would learn what the student didn’t understand.  Voilà!  She understood the student intellectually and she could then help the student understand how to solve the problem.  This advice was a great example of what I will call intellectual empathic listening.


Let me explain it one more way, by sharing an example in the book. (As a former engineer, actually “recovering engineer,” I can identify with this analogy.) “A good engineer,” Covey says, “will understand the forces, the stresses at work, before designing the bridge.”  He continues, “A good teacher will assess the class before teaching,” (p. 244)  So, why didn’t I just start off with that? Sorry, but I’m taking the 5th.

Similar to my comments about the first four habits, there is much more to “understand” about the 5th habit than I can begin to cover.  You really should read Covey’s book.   Having said that, I will touch oh so lightly on the “Be Understood” part of this habit.

Covey identifies three critical elements to being understood – ethos, pathos and logos.  You say you didn’t study Greek?  Neither did I, so let me summarize.  Ethos refers to personal credibility.  Your listeners must believe in you.  They must deem you credible.  Is that the way your students feel about you? Pathos refers to empathy.  Your listeners must believe that you understand them, and there must be emotional trust.  (This reminds me of a famous quote attributed to several people, including Theodore Roosevelt and the most widely quoted writer of all time, Unknown.  “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”)  Is this the way your students perceive you? And finally, there is Logos which refers to one’s logic or reasoning.  Are you able to present your points clearly and concisely to your students? Or, do they think you are full of %$@#!&?

One more think about being understood. Covey emphasizes the sequence of these three elements.  To be understood, you must first have character, next establish relationships, and then apply your logic.

Summary and Closing Thoughts

Understanding of the First Kind is the factual and procedural understanding an instructor needs to be successful. This is not based on Covey’s book, but it is important.

Understanding of the Second Kind is what occurs when one practices Empathic Listening.  This is the kind of understanding that creates relationships and precedes the second part of Habit #5 – Be Understood.  By the way, people who seek First to Understand/Then to be Understood usually practice Habit #4 – they Think Win/Win.

Understanding of the Third Kind is, well, something I almost forgot to mention.  This is when you don’t understand what you don’t understand. You really don’t want a “Close Encounter” with this kind of understanding.  However, to illustrate, I found someone who possess this kind of understanding.  He doesn’t understand that he has no musical ability.  Check it out.   Click Here.

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted May 2, 2010

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.

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