As usual, It Starts With An Innocent Tweet

Working so much with clients and in the Moz Q&A lately, I’d really gotten to thinking just how important this above tweet is at doing an exceptional job. Not just a good job – an exceptional one. One where you not only answer the question but leave the person feeling like you really understand their unique position, and not only that, give them an awesome experience with the Moz Q&A.

The tweet got a decent reaction on Twitter from people like Neil (@AudienceCreator) – thus I’m feeling that folks might like an elaboration on this concept and practical tips for applying it.

What’s The 5th Habit?

“Seek First To Understand Before Being Understood”

In Stephen Covey’s masterpiece, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People wikipedia page – the 5th Habit “Seek First To Understand Before Being Understood” is a three step process:

  1. empathetic listening to the other person
  2. making the other person feel understood
  3. and then only when you’re sure they feel understood, you explain your side

Because it is only when the other person feels understood, will they open up and listen to what you have to say.

In SEO terms – you will GIVE your best advice after listening with empathy and this advise will also be more received because the other person is ready to hear it.

Using My 2 Hour Commute to Learn the 7 Habits

Waaaayy back in 2007, I was driving 60+ minutes (each way) to work for my Dad, 4 days a week, against Boston traffic.

I’d stop at the local library and get audio books to make best use of the time driving. I’m a non-fiction guy, so it’s how I first heard “The Tipping Point”, “Made To Stick”, “The 80/20 Principle” and so many other phenomenal books.

The one that changed everything was The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People.

Reading the 7 Habits, it wasn’t so much me going “ohhh that’s new” but rather the 7 Habits reaffirmed and organized (eloquently I might add) many “truths” of human nature I’d believed for years. People mistake it for just another “self-help” or “business management” book when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Covey gives you practical tools for incoprating these principles into everyday life – and (shocker) making them habits.

I am NOT saying I’m a master at these habits at all – in fact I fail more often than succeed at it. They are a lifelong practice.

How Does the 5th Habit Apply To SEO?

That’s the beauty of universal truths. They can apply to anything if you know how to attach the abstract concept to the tangible situation. The 5th Habit applies to SEO in the following three ways;

  1. Communicating with clients
  2. Answering questions in Q&A’s
  3. Helping (or as Wil Reynolds would call it – Stalking)

These are the ways it has applied personally to my daily SEO activities – but they can certainly apply to things like working with a team in a company.

The whole idea of the 5th Habit was also on my mind because of THIS fantastic article by Brad Feld “The Power of TAGFEE and Just Executing” In particular this quote by Rand:

“…there’s a missing “H” in TAGFEE. For humility. In fact, empathy and humility in potential hires are the best predictors that they’re going to fit with our team and be TAGFEE.”

– Rand Fishkin

Well said indeed!

Number of Followers as a “Helpfulness Metric”

I consider my follower growth to be akin to a “helpfulness scale”.

@dan_shure follower growth – June 30th 2011 – June 20th 2012

This is NOT a bragging metric. Its NOT EVEN a metric you should measure for “success” in social media in any normal circumstance.

The point is to show the results of steady, consistent listening, helping and understanding.

This is with very little in person networking. Its mostly due to connecting with people on Twitter, helping people when they need it, going above and beyond in Q&A, producing content I truly hope helps others, and trying to help others by sharing their content.

How To Practice The Skill of Making Others Feel Understood

Let’s stop right here before I continue. SO many people approach life, link building, marriage, school with “tricks”. What quick trick can I use to get what *I* want? THIS IS NOT WHAT WE’RE DOING HERE. You have to have the real desire to practice something so much it becomes a habit. YOU have to have the desire to understand others – and simply use this as a method to practice your skills.

K… now that that’s out of the way 🙂

I’m going completely from memory here, and adding my own insights.

The Listening Part

  • As you listen to the other person (or read) avoid preparing your own response in your head. How often when someone is talking are you prepping your own response and forgotten to pay attention to the person speaking? How often have you skimmed a blog post or Q&A question or email without really taking the time to understand it before jumping down to add your comment?
  • As you read or listen – try to actually visualize whatever the person is describing – colors, shapes, movements (this actually helps me pay attention).
  • As you listen – try to actually feel the emotions that person is feeling. Start with simple positive or negative. Is it a good or bad emotion? Then get more detailed. Is it fearful or anxious? Excited or hopeful?
  • Don’t interrupt unless its to ask a question to get clarification. Remember, the goal is to make the other person first feel understood. How often do you feel understood when being interrupted?

Making the Person Feel Understood

1. First – you attempt to explain back to them what they just told you.

  • When you do this (VERY IMPORTANT) use facts and emotions. In other words, if someone says, “I’m so worried because my rankings have dropped badly in the last week” and you say “I understand your rankings have gotten worse” you missed the emotion. You have to get both, and say something like “You’re really stressed and concerned that you’re rankings have seemed to inexplicably dropped”. Feeling understood is just as much about the emotions as the facts.
  • Reword what they have said back into your own words. If someone says “I’m so upset” and you say “you’re upset” this isn’t showing you’ve really internalized what they’ve said. Replace their words with something that shows you’ve reflected on it like “you’re unhappy” or “you’re feeling sad”.

2. Keep listening and echoing what they say until its 100% clear they understand

  • Again – this is NOT a “trick” or quick win. You really have to truly know and feel what the other person is saying.
  • Usually you can get a sense when someone feels understood either by asking them or they’ll tell you.

Only Give SEO Advice Once They’ve Felt Understood

  • This relates back to my tweet. I suggest to only give technical advice after you’ve given an indication you understand. So obviously in a Q&A, without instant feedback, do the best you can to do steps one and two – in a few brief sentences – then give the technical advise.
  • Answering questions is as much about easing emotions as answering the question. There’s ALWAYS an emotional need behind every question.
  • Apply this to a call or meeting with a client by agreeing with yourself to NOT jump in and speak/give advise before you’re SURE they feel like you understand where they’re coming from. This may only mean an extra 3-5 minutes up front. We’re not talking necessarily hours here.
  • One of the best parts about all of this? YOU’LL ACTUALLY ALSO GIVE BETTER ADVISE BECAUSE YOU’VE LISTENED.

For even more explanation, check out this video – Covey talks about the “Indian Talking Stick” and how this relates to the 5th Habit and empathetic listening.


The beauty is, this can be practiced anywhere, with anyone, at anytime. And SHOULD be!! You don’t need a panicked client with tanked rankings to try this out on.

Was This Really About SEO?

Grreeeat question. No, it was not about the latest link building trick or duplicate content or the latest black and white animal to wreak havoc on the dotted line in your analytics profile.

So no, I didn’t teach you anything “new” about SEO here. But as much as I LOVE learning techniques, tools and tactics as the next person – I think we often MISS these timeless elements of human nature that just might be part of the hidden energy and force behind all the metrics.

TRY listening with empathy, repeating back what you’ve heard and making others feel understood. This can do AMAZING things.

About Dan Shure

Hi! I'm Dan Shure. I write all of the posts and host all of the podcast episodes you'll find on the Evolving SEO blog. Say hello on Twitter @dan_shure!


  • June 20, 2012 Reply

    Mike Arnesen

    I love when SEO gets posts like this, with learnings that originate from outside our industry. I personally see great opportunity to use the fifth habit when working with clients. 7 Habits has been on my reading list for a while and this is great motivation for me to get on that.

    One question I had about making the person feel understood (steps one and two). I think this is great for working with clients and for something like the SEOMoz Q and A (pretty much anything where it’s a clients and service provider relationship), but what about for providing somewhat unsolicited help and advice? On a medium like Twitter or Quora, do you think reiterating the asker’s concern would come off as patronizing? Just a point of curiosity since I’m not sure I would use that tactic there.

    Also, did you mean “advice” or “advise” in your post. I was thinking you meant “advice”.

    Great post, Dan!

    • June 20, 2012 Reply

      Dan Shure

      Hey Mike

      That’s a great question – do you make a person feel understood in a quick discussion like Twitter / Quora? And yeah, totally, I think you need to apply etiquette and common sense to this.

      So what I’ll do is at least make sure I’ve done this process of understanding in my head so that I fully understand internally and give the type of answer I think fits best to the tone of the question.

      For instance in the Moz Q&A especially there’s a heavier emotional tone to questions than others, so I’ll definitely respond according this the amount of emotion that needs to be addressed.

      Sometimes you can show best understanding in an implied way by just giving your all in the answer and process of understanding the question first.

      Yup – “advice” – think I caught all of them, thanks!

  • June 20, 2012 Reply

    Anthony Pensabene

    Dan, you know I dig this a lot. I ‘favorited’ your initial tweet because I thought it expressed real insight of a student and teacher.

    I believe exercising empathy enriches one’s own life and enables them to learn to walk parallel with many others, which is extremely powerful.

    I enjoy this sentiment coming from you because you TRULY walk your talk; and, you have a keen feeling and thinking/analytic mind, which is unique and a gift. I believe the ‘left’ brainers will give this piece more immediate respect because it is coming from you.

  • June 20, 2012 Reply


    Great and big post to enhance human communication. It can be applied to any single way of communication therefore in SEO. Although I read it more interested to growth myself first and hopefully the rest will come along.

  • June 20, 2012 Reply

    Shaad Hamid

    Hi Dan,

    Great post! I kinda felt you were being a tad bit defensive about the fact that this post isn’t about SEO 🙂 But I think not everything we write needs to be strictly about SEO. I strongly believe that being a great SEO means taking the time to understand the needs of your client’s and their business objectives. I wrote about how we should never forget the “human ranking factor” when it comes to SEO, which a lot of us tend to overlook
    Being great with clients doesn’t mean hammering your point across aggressively but as you rightly point out, it’s about actually taking the time to listen with empathy. Easier said than done though.

  • June 20, 2012 Reply


    As someone who’s just finished reading Covey’s 7 Habits for the first time, this post is very, VERY well-timed. And as someone who’s a die-hard SEO, the fact that one of the 7 Habits is intertwined with SEO is awesome.

    Also, as far as the last paragraph is concerned, I wouldn’t be afraid to post about non-SEO techniques on an SEO blog, especially if they help with the application of SEO, as is the case here.

    Thanks Dan, great post!

    • June 20, 2012 Reply

      Dan Shure

      That’s great! I hope you enjoyed the book and got as much out of it as I did. I actually think you can apply every habit to SEO and perhaps some more posts are due 🙂


  • June 26, 2012 Reply

    Nick Stamoulis

    Every client is different which means that you need to approach the SEO strategy in different ways. There is no one size fits all solution. That’s where the listening comes in. You really need to spend time learning about the client’s business and their overall goals and objectives.

  • June 28, 2012 Reply


    Hey Dan,

    I don’t know who you are, I just randomly come across this blog and as soon I saw the word HOLISTIC approach to SEO on about page and read this post about making the other person FEEL understood, I immediately subscribed.

    Didn’t expect to find people like this in SEO industry.

  • September 21, 2016 Reply


    Hey Dan, I’m eating up any content about Empathy at the moment having read the book zero degrees of empathy – its one of the most important books that no one seems to know!

    Anyway, i was also inspired to write a post about Empathy in SEO, but from a different angle to yours, mostly about how to approach SEO in light of empathy towards googles goals:

    Let me know if you give it a read.

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