Stephen Covey’s Synergistic Communication: Foreword & Classroom Synergy

Phew, another golden chapter from one of the most golden-led books in the realm of personal development.

When you communicate synergistically, you are simply opening your mind and heart and expressions to new possibilities, new alternatives, new options.

You’re not sure when you engage in synergistic communication how things will work out or what the end will look like, but you do have an inward sense of excitement and security and adventure, believing that it will be significantly better than it was before.

Boom! Now, I’m going to relate to a particular group of people who are finding it extremely hard to open their mind and heart to new possibilities — Americans.

With what I talked about yesterday in terms of what’s happening around the world, America is in desperate need of help — period.  Roseanne Barr, who was a sitcom actress, spouted and spewed some hateful remarks towards an African American.  Americans on one side said, “ohhh, that’s not racist! That’s not this! That’s not that!” completely shoving aside the fact that if they had listened empathically, and I mean with empathy, they’ve could’ve opened up a new side of themselves.  A side that’s so desperately needed in America today with the racial issues that are making waves on the nasty, WMD platforms (weapons of mass distraction).

Many people have not really experienced even a moderate degree of synergy in their family life or in other interactions.  They’ve been trained and scripted into defensive and protective communications or into believing that life or other people can’t be trusted.

And as you can see, this is why so many barriers are created in the world.

This represents one of the great tragedies and wastes in life, because so much potential remains untapped — completely undeveloped and unused.  Ineffective people live day after day with unused potential.  They experience synergy only in small, peripheral ways in their lives.

They may have memories of some unusually creative experiences, perhaps in athletics, where they were involved in a real team spirit for a period of time.  or perhaps they were in an emergency situation where people cooperated to an unusually high degree and submerged ego and pride in an effort to save someone’s life or produce a solution to a crisis.

To many, such events may seem unusual, almost out of character with life, even miraculous.  But this is not so.  These things can be produced regularly, consistently, almost daily in people’s lives.

Classroom Synergy

I’ll never forget a university class I taught in leadership philosophy and style.  We were about three weeks into a semester when, in the middle of a presentation, one person started to relate some very powerful personal experiences which were both emotional and insightful.  A spirit of humility and reverence fell upon the class — reverence toward this individual and appreciate for his courage.

We abandoned the old syllabus, the purchased textbooks and all the presentation plans, and we set up new purposes and projects and assignments.  We became so excited about what was happening that in about three more weeks, we all sensed an overwhelming desire to share what was happening with others.

We decided to write a book containing our learnings and insights on the subject of our study — principles of leadership.  Assignments were changed, new projects undertaken, new teams formed.  People worked much harder than they ever would have in the original class structure.

Out of this experience emerged an extremely unique, cohesive, and synergistic culture that did not end with the semester.

I’ve had a many of experiences like this that I have spoken about in my podcast down below.

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.