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Book Summary: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families – Creating Powerful & Positive Relationships Within the Family

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families (1997) was written by Stephen R. Covey with, as he says, “such a passion . . . because family is what I care about most.” It’s a very personal book that talks about how the author, his wife, and nine children apply each of the habits in their family life. It can also be your guide to solving the problems you face in your family as you strive, individually and together, to become more effective.

Introduction: Learn how to change your behavior and help your family become highly effective.

Imagine you’re about to take a flight. You check with the pilot where you’re going to be flying to today. He replies, “No idea. We’re going to take off, follow the wind, and land wherever we fancy.” You’d no doubt be pretty worried – scared even – and, chances are, you wouldn’t get on that flight!

Just as an airplane needs a destination and flight plan, a family should also have an idea of its purpose and destination. Sure, it may drift off course from time to time, but with a clear vision of that destination, it can keep coming back to the flight plan for guidance and be sure that it’ll arrive safely.

This summary to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families by Stephen Covey will walk you through each of the seven habits. Along the way, it will provide some hints and tips on how you can put them into practice in your day-to-day life as you and your family strive to become highly effective together.

In this summary, you’ll learn

  • how to create a family mission statement;
  • practical ways to ensure you make your family your top priority, and
  • how 1 + 1 can equal 3, or even more.

Book Summary: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families - Creating Powerful & Positive Relationships Within the Family

Habit 1 of 7: Be proactive.

Almost everyone has heard of the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. He spent World War II in a Nazi concentration camp. There, he endured horrific experiments at the hands of his captors and witnessed the deaths of family members. Many captives understandably gave up in the face of such conditions, but, he observed, others were carrying out acts of kindness. Some even gave fellow inmates their last scraps of food. He realized there was one thing that couldn’t be taken away from any man or woman: their freedom to choose how they respond to their circumstances.

Between anything that happens to us and our response, there’s a “space.” In that time, we’re free to choose how we respond. What we choose ultimately affects how we grow – and our happiness.

As newborn babies, we don’t have much possibility to choose. But as we grow, we develop what Covey calls “four unique human gifts” – These gifts are: self-awareness, or the ability to evaluate our thoughts, actions, and lives; conscience – our “inner voice” of what is ethical and moral; imagination – our ability to envision a future different from our past; and independent will – how we respond to our genes and our environment.

Instead of simply being responsive, we can use these gifts to make what we can from life, take responsibility for how we respond, and take steps toward shaping our own future. In short, be proactive.

To be proactive is the first and most important of the seven habits. Mastering it is key to unlocking the power of the others. So let’s cover some techniques to optimize your proactivity.

First, focus on things you can do something about rather than on things outside of your control. Think of the words of Saint Francis of Assisi: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Then, make sure you always use proactive language. Instead of saying or even thinking things like, “My grandfather and father behaved like that, so I do too,” change your whole attitude and say, “They acted like that, but I choose not to.”

Remember to pause, think, and choose. Press the “pause button” between anything that happens to you and how you respond. Think about the possible proactive responses. And choose the response with the best consequences.

And don’t forget the gift of humor. Laugh, smile, and have fun when you can. You can even laugh at your own mistakes and clumsiness.

Finally, as Gandhi said, we should be the change we want to see in others. So, start by being proactive yourself and then inspire your family to be proactive too.

Habit 2 of 7: Begin with the end in mind.

Imagine you’re on a construction site. You approach some of the workers and ask them what they’re building. “No idea,” they say. You ask to see the blueprint. “We don’t have one,” says the supervisor. “We’re building as we go and figuring it out along the way.” So you ask what purpose the building will serve. “We don’t know yet,” they reply.

When you think of your family in the same way, without a blueprint, how can you know where your family is heading, what it’s for, and what it’s trying to achieve? What you need is a family mission statement. This is where the second habit, begin with the end in mind, comes in.

Creating a mission statement for your family needs some dedicated uninterrupted time, but can be accomplished in three steps.

First, brainstorm the purpose, values, and dreams of your family together. Ask yourselves what you want to be and do as a family. What are your goals? Where are you heading? What are your family values? Everyone should share their ideas – the more involvement, the more buy-in and commitment. Accept all ideas at this stage without judgment, no matter how wacky they may seem! Think possibilities, not limitations.

Second step? Combine the ideas into a single set of expressions that capture everything about your family. Perfection isn’t necessary, but it is important to write things down. You can always revisit the statements later. Write whatever fits for your family whether that includes statements like “Our mission is to respect and accept each other’s talents,” or something more simple like “Our mission is to love and help each other,” or “Our family has fun together.”

The third step is to use your mission statement to keep your family on track. Put it where you can all see it. You might even want to frame it. Use it to guide your family in all that you do. When you stray from it, come back to it to correct your course. And don’t forget to revise and update your statement as your family’s needs and desires develop, and the issues it faces change.

Habit 3 of 7: Put first things first.

Think for a moment about things that matter to you and how you’d rank them.

Most people put their relationships at the top of the list – family, friends, pets, work colleagues, and God, for example.

Next, they list their values – freedom, trust, loyalty, integrity, and so on.

And only at the end, they think about objects like cars, houses, cell phones, and other less tangible things like their job, leisure activities, or any side projects.

But the stark reality is, that when it comes to allocating your time you probably don’t spend enough time developing your relationships, less time pursuing your values, and what has actually taken over your time are those things at the end of your priorities. What you say isn’t always what you do.

So, the third habit is to put first things first. Make your family and your relationships your top priority.

To help you achieve this, put some systems in place which help you sustain effective results. But keep them flexible and family-friendly while maintaining some kind of order. The Coveys had what they called their four “Big Rock” family systems:

Have regular family meal times to help you eat more healthily and aid better family communication. Other researched and proven benefits include less risky behavior from teens such as drug and alcohol use; better mental health for the whole family; and better grades for the kids.

Set aside at least one hour on a mutually convenient, consistent day for weekly family time. Nothing will provide your family with more opportunity to build relationships. Use it to review your schedules, solve family problems, and perhaps even a time for a little “teaching” by one of the children. Whatever you do, make it fun.

Your family traditions are also a great time to have fun together. But you can also use them as opportunities for the family to recommit to its values, revisit its mission statement, tell stories, and build and grow your interpersonal relationships.

And finally, don’t forget that everyone in the family is an individual. Use one-on-one time to be completely present with the other person. If that’s one of your children, let them decide the agenda. Use the time to understand the other person completely and build trust between you.

And why did the Coveys call these four things their “Big Rocks” – well, these important things go in the family schedule first. You’ll have some work “Big Rocks” to slot in too, but when these are all in place, it’s much easier to see where the “smaller rocks” can fit into your busy schedules.

Habit 4 of 7: Think win-win.

Life is filled with winners and losers. In the world of sport, for example, there can only be one winner of the NFL Superbowl.

But there’s no reason why, in a family setting, there needs to be winners and losers. Win-lose, lose-win, and lose-lose situations create at least one loser – and nobody likes to lose, least of all within a family. When we engage in win-lose battles, we’re only out for ourselves; we no longer care about what is right only about who is right; and we fight over who’s the best, creating a huge negative impact on our family’s culture.

When we think win-win – our fourth habit – we adopt an abundance mentality. There’s plenty to go around for everyone. A win for one family member becomes a win for the entire family. You begin to think in terms of “we” and not “me.” And this creates trust, mutual benefit, and positive outcomes.

Covey uses a powerful metaphor to describe how to build mutual trust in relationships. He calls it the Emotional Bank Account.

Just like a bank, you can make deposits and withdrawals. When you do something that builds trust, you make a deposit. When you do something that reduces trust, you make a withdrawal. When the balance of your Emotional Bank Account is high, there’s a high level of trust which is also an indication of a high level of communication.

So how can you make deposits?

Start by doing little acts of kindness. Contrary to what you might think, it’s these little acts and deeds that build the most lasting trust.

Then, always apologize sincerely when you mess up. Lame excuses or blaming others for your misdeeds result in a huge withdrawal.

Don’t talk about people behind their backs or gossip about them in their absence. Such actions break the trust between you and the person you talked about – and also break the trust between you and the person you’re talking to. After all, if a person is willing to talk about one person behind their back, perhaps they also do the same behind yours!

When families make and keep promises to each other, they know that they can trust each other to do what they say. Breaking a promise also breaks that trust and it can take months of good behavior to repair.

Finally, remember to forgive. Forgiving each other creates channels through which love and trust flow.

Habit 5 of 7: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Ask any family counselor what the top complaint they hear from their clients is, and you’ll invariably hear the same answer: poor communication.

In the classic book, The Little Prince, the fox observes that “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” He has a point. Seeking to understand another family member’s heartfelt feelings creates a huge deposit in our Emotional Bank Account. So it’s no wonder that our fifth habit is to seek first to understand, then to be understood.

The key to understanding is listening. Yet often, we only pretend to listen, nodding our heads while checking our social media. Or we listen selectively, trying to catch the main points rather than giving the other person our undivided attention. It’s only when we use attentive listening that we really start to give the speaker the time they deserve, focusing on every word and being attentive to their body language, too.

But there’s yet another, higher level of listening we need to practice: empathic listening. Empathy requires us to do our utmost to see the world from the speaker’s viewpoint. When emotions are involved, trust has been broken, and deep feelings are being communicated, we need to set aside distractions and use all our senses to listen. And most of all, we need to listen with our hearts, just as the fox said.

When you listen in this way, don’t judge or evaluate. Hold off on giving advice too. Jumping in with your worldly wisdom often means you’ve failed to understand the other person at all. Keep any probing questions to a minimum. Allow the other person to speak rather than, perhaps inadvertently, leading them toward a possible solution. Instead, ask clarifying questions to confirm the accuracy of what you’ve understood. Such questions demonstrate your desire to understand while generating trust.

When you fully understand the other person, you’re in a position to give feedback and share your own feelings and viewpoint within their frame of reference rather than your own. That’s why, logically, and then be understood comes after seek first to understand.

Habit 6 of 7: Synergize.

The sum of 1 + 1 can equal 3 – or perhaps more. No, I didn’t flunk basic math. There really are situations where this is, kind of, true.

When two people are put on a project to work together, if they have conflicting views on how to complete it, then the result is probably going to be less than if one of them worked on the project alone – let’s say the sum of their achievement = ½. If they compromise – each side gives way a little to the other – they might even get a result of 1½. And if they use teamwork and combine their efforts they’ll achieve a result of 2.

But, and here’s where the magic starts, if they synergize their efforts – each person brings their own strengths to the party, their unique talents and ideas – they can come up with better ideas and solutions than the sum of what they could achieve individually – a result of 3 or even more.

When you practice and develop synergy you’ll find that there’s no more “my way” or “your way,” but rather “our way” – a better, higher alternative way. There’s more creative cooperation, too, and each family member’s strengths and weaknesses become irrelevant. Your family will face challenges and opportunities that come their way together and at a much higher level.

Habit 7 of 7: Sharpen the saw.

Imagine you and a neighbor are sawing down similar dead trees in your yards. You have the same age and physical build, and the same saws. You begin at the same time.

You stop after a few hours to rest. But your neighbor stopped for a break every hour. But what’s this? His tree is nearly cut through whereas you’re only halfway. How’s that even possible?

You ask. And your neighbor reveals that every time they took a break, they also sharpened their saw! Naturally, they were then able to cut through the tree faster.

The seventh and final habit is, then, to sharpen the saw – or, in other words, taking the time to renew four key areas in your family life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual needs.

Failure to attend to or renew these areas eventually results in deterioration, so it’s essential that – both individually and as a family – you set aside time for renewal. Try some of these ideas each day or find some of your own:

Physically, try exercising more or eating healthier food. For your social-emotional needs, what about building some new friendships and finding ways to reduce stress levels? Mentally, why not try reading more or starting a new hobby? And spiritually, give meditation a go or read inspirational literature.

And when it comes to the family, use some of those “Big Rock” times we talked about earlier. Family meal times and one-on-one bonding times are excellent opportunities to sharpen the saw together. And, of course, family vacations are a fantastic opportunity for family activities as are activities that involve the extended family.

Sharpening the saw together helps your family develop its sense of identity, deepen its connectivity, and provide you all with a shared sense of hope.


The thing to remember from this is that:

The key to succeeding as a highly effective family doesn’t lie in the practice of any singular habit, but rather in learning and using each habit to make a difference. So let’s quickly recap those habits:

Habits 1 to 3 – be proactive; begin with the end in mind; and put first things first – so to be highly effect, you gotta provide your family with a mindset, a sense of destination, and a recognition of its priorities.

Habits 4 to 6 – think win-win; seek first to understand, then to be understood; and synergize – provide a structure and process for your family to work together to accomplish its goals.

And habit 7 – sharpen the saw – describes the power of renewal your family needs to keep doing to remain highly effective.

Learning these habits is an ongoing activity. Think of it as climbing a spiral staircase, each step representing one habit. When you move from step seven to eight, effectively you start over with step one again, and so on. Each time you restart the habits you’re at a higher level and better placed to apply each habit to even more areas of your life.

And finally, here’s some more actionable advice:

Start with yourself.

You can think of working with the seven habits as concentric circles. You are the innermost of these circles. When you start with yourself, the effects ripple out, touching each relationship until they reach everyone in your family and perhaps even your community. But where to begin?

Be honest with yourself and think about one thing you could stop or start doing that would have a huge impact on your family and work on that. Make a simple plan for how you’ll keep your commitment to change over the next 30 days or so. Then share your plan with someone who’ll help you achieve it through their encouragement and tips, and who -you can celebrate your progress with you.

When you’ve first worked on yourself, you can then move outward, applying the habits to one specific family relationship, then to the whole of your family. Finally, your family could think about how using the habits could improve your whole community.

About the author

Stephen R. Covey (1932-2012)–recognized by Time magazine as one of America’s twenty-five most influential people–was the author of best-selling books including The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, First Things First, and The 8th Habit. He was chairman of the FranklinCovey Company and lived with his wife Sandra in Provo, Utah.

Sandra Covey, the wife of Stephen Covery, whoTime magazine deemed one of America’s twenty-five most influential people, lives in Provo, Utah. The couple has three children.


Sex, Relationships, Parenting, Self-Help, Family, Time Management, Christian, Personal Development, Psychology, Leadership, Business, Productivity

Table of Contents

You’re Going to Be “Off Track” 90 Percent of the Time. So What?,
Habit 1: Be Proactive Becoming an Agent of Change in Your Family,
Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind Developing a Family Mission Statement,
Habit 3: Put First Things First Making Family a Priority in a Turbulent World,
Habit 4: Think “Win-Win” Moving from “Me” to “We”,
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand … Then to Be Understood Solving Family Problems Through Empathic Communication,
Habit 6: Synergize Building Family Unity Through Celebrating Differences,
Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw Renewing the Family Spirit Through Traditions,
From Survival … to Stability … to Success … to Significance,


In his first major work since The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey presents a practical and philosophical guide to solving the problems–large and small, mundane and extraordinary―that confront all families and strong communities. By offering revealing anecdotes about ordinary people as well as helpful suggestions about changing everyday behavior, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families shows how and why to have family meetings, the importance of keeping promises, how to balance individual and family needs, and how to move from dependence to interdependence. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families is an invaluable guidebook to the welfare of families everywhere.


“This smoothly written book provides excellent advice.” ― Publishers Weekly

“His message … is written with sincerity and simplicity, and even the most career-driven individual should feel passionate about family after reading this book.” ― Library Journal

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You’re Going to Be “Off Track” 90 Percent of the Time. So What?

Good families — even great families — are off track 90 percent of the time! The key is that they have a sense of destination. They know what the “track” looks like. And they keep coming back to it time and time again.

It’s like the flight of an airplane. Before the plane takes off, the pilots have a flight plan. They know exactly where they’re going and start off in accordance with their plan. But during the course of the flight, wind, rain, turbulence, air traffic, human error, and other factors act upon that plane. They move it slightly in different directions so that most of the time that plane is not even on the prescribed flight path! Throughout the entire trip there are slight deviations from the flight plan. Weather systems or unusually heavy air traffic may even cause major deviations. But barring anything too major, the plane will arrive at its destination.

Now how does that happen? During the flight, the pilots receive constant feedback. They receive information from instruments that read the environment, from control towers, from other airplanes — even sometimes from the stars. And based on that feedback, they make adjustments so that time and time again, they keep returning to the flight plan.

The hope lies not in the deviations but in the vision, the plan, and the ability to get back on track.

The flight of that airplane is, I believe, the ideal metaphor for family life. With regard to our families, it doesn’t make any difference if we are off target or even if our family is a mess. The hope lies in the vision and in the plan and in the courage to keep coming back time and time again.

Sean (our son):

In general, I’d say that our family had as many fights as other families when we were growing up. We had our share of problems, too. But I am convinced that it was the ability to renew, to apologize, and to start again that made our family relationships strong.

On our family trips, for example, Dad would have all these plans for us to get up at 5:00 A.M., have breakfast, and get ready to be on the road by 8:00. The problem was that when the day arrived, we’d all be sleeping in and no one wanted to help. Dad would lose his temper. When we’d finally get off, about twelve hours after the time we were supposed to go, no one would even want to talk to Dad because he was so mad.

But what I remember the most is that Dad always apologized. Always. And it was a humbling thing to see him apologize for losing his temper — especially when you knew deep inside that you were one of the ones who had provoked him.

As I look back, I think what made the difference in our family was that both Mom and Dad would always keep coming back, keep trying — even when we were goofing off, even when it seemed that all their new plans and systems for family meetings and family goals and family chores were never going to work.

As you can see, our family is no exception. I’m no exception. I want to affirm at the very outset that whatever your situation — even if you are having many difficulties, problems, and setbacks — there is tremendous hope in moving toward your destination. The key is in having a destination, a flight plan, and a compass.

The key is in having a destination, a flight plan, and a compass.

This metaphor of the airplane will be used continuously throughout this book to communicate a sense of hope and excitement around the whole idea of building a beautiful family culture.

The Three Purposes of This Book

My desire in writing this book is to help you keep this sense of hope first and foremost in your mind and heart, and to help you develop these three things that will help you and your family stay on track: a destination, a flight plan, and a compass.

1. A clear vision of your destination. I realize that you come to this book with a unique family situation and unique needs. You may be struggling to keep your marriage together or to rebuild it. Or you may already have a good marriage but want a great one — one that is deeply satisfying and fulfilling. You may be a single parent and feel overwhelmed by the relentless crush of demands and pressures put upon you. You may be struggling with a wayward child or a rebellious teenager who is under the control of a gang or drugs or some other negative influence in society. You may be trying to blend two families together who “couldn’t care less.”

Perhaps you want your children to do their jobs and their homework cheerfully, without being reminded. Or you’re feeling challenged trying to fulfill combined (and apparently conflicting) roles in your family life, such as parent, judge, jury, jailer, and friend. Or you’re bouncing back and forth between strictness and permissiveness, not knowing how to discipline.

You may be struggling simply to make ends meet. You may be “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Your economic worries may almost overwhelm you and consume all your time and your emotions so that there is hardly anything left for relationships. You may have two or more jobs, and you and your loved ones just pass one another like ships in the night. The idea of a beautiful family culture may seem ever so remote.

It could be that the feeling and spirit in your family is contentious, that you have people quarreling, fighting, yelling, screaming, demanding, snarling, sniping, sneering, blaming, criticizing, walking out, slamming doors, ignoring, withdrawing, or whatever. It could be that some older kids won’t even come home, that there seems to be no natural affection left. It could be that the feeling in your marriage has died or is dying, or that you’re feeling empty and alone. Or it could be that you’re working your heart out to make everything nice, and nothing seems to improve. You’re exhausted, and you have a sense of futility and “what’s the use?”

Or you may be a grandparent who cares deeply but doesn’t know how to help without making things worse. Perhaps your relationship with a son or daughter-in-law has become soured, and there’s nothing but surface politeness and a deep cold war inside, which occasionally erupts into a hot one. It could be that you’ve been a victim of abuse for many years — in your upbringing or in your marriage — and you’re desirous and determined to stop that cycle, but you can’t seem to find any pattern or example to follow and keep falling back into the same tendencies and practices you abhor. Or it could be you’re a couple that wants desperately to have children but can’t, and you feel the sweetness in your marriage beginning to slip away.

You may even be experiencing a combination of many of these stresses, and you have no sense of hope at all. Whatever your situation, it is vitally important that you do not compare your family to any other family. No one will ever know the full reality of your situation, and until you feel that they do, their advice is worthless. Similarly, you will never know the full reality of another family or another person’s family situation. Our common tendency is to project our own situation onto others and try to prescribe what is right for them. But what we see on the surface is usually only the tip of the iceberg. Many people think that other families are just about perfect while theirs is falling apart. Yet every family has its challenges, its own bag of rocks.

The wonderful thing is that vision is greater than baggage. This means that a sense of what you can envision for the future — a better situation, a better state of being — is more powerful than whatever ugliness has accumulated in the past or whatever situation you are confronting in the present.

So I would like to share with you the way that families throughout the world have created a sense of shared vision and values through the development of a “family mission statement.” I’ll show you how you can develop such a statement and how it will unify and strengthen your family. A family mission statement can become your family’s unique “destination,” and the values it contains will represent your guidelines.

The vision of a better, more effective family will probably start with you. But to make it work well, others in the family must also feel involved. They must help to form it — or at least understand it and buy into it. And the reason is simple. Have you ever done a jigsaw puzzle or seen someone doing one? How important is it that you have the final scene in mind? How important is it that all who are working on it have the same final scene in mind? Without a sense of shared vision, people would be using different criteria to make their decisions, and the result would be total confusion.

The idea is to create a vision that is shared by everyone in the family. When your destination is clear, you can keep coming back to the flight plan time and time again. In fact, the journey is really part of the destination. They are inseparably connected. How you travel is as important as where you arrive.

2. A flight plan. It’s also vital that you have a flight plan based on the principles that will enable you to arrive at your destination. Let me share with you a story to illustrate.

I have a dear friend who once shared with me his deep concern over a son he described as being “rebellious,” “disturbing,” and “an ingrate.”

“Stephen, I don’t know what to do,” he said. “It’s gotten to the point where if I come into the room to watch television with my son, he turns it off and walks out. I’ve tried my best to reach him, but it’s just beyond me.”

At the time I was teaching some university classes around the 7 Habits. I said, “Why don’t you come with me to my class right now? We’re going to be talking about Habit 5 — how to listen empathically to another person before you attempt to explain yourself. My guess is that your son may not feel understood.”

“I already understand him,” he replied. “And I can see problems he’s going to have if he doesn’t listen to me.”

“Let me suggest that you assume you know nothing about your son. Just start with a clean slate. Listen to him without any moral evaluation or judgment. Come to class and learn how to do this and how to listen within his frame of reference.”

So he came. Thinking he understood after just one class, he went to his son and said, “I need to listen to you. I probably don’t understand you, and I want to.”

His son replied, “You have never understood me — ever!” And with that, he walked out.

The following day my friend said, “Stephen, it didn’t work. I made such an effort, and this is how he treated me! I felt like saying, ‘You idiot! Don’t you realize what I’ve done and what I’m trying to do now?’ I really don’t know if there’s any hope.”

I said, “He’s testing your sincerity. And what did he find out? He found out you don’t really want to understand him. You want him to shape up.”

“He should, the little whippersnapper!” he replied. “He knows full well what he’s doing to mess things up.”

I replied, “Look at the spirit inside you now. You’re angry and frustrated and full of judgments. Do you think you can use some surface-level listening technique with your son and get him to open up? Do you think it’s possible for you to talk to him or even look at him without somehow communicating all those negative things you’re feeling deep inside? You’ve got to do much more private work inside your own mind and heart. You’ll eventually learn to love him unconditionally just the way he is rather than withholding your love until he shapes up. On the way, you’ll learn to listen within his frame of reference and, if necessary, apologize for your judgments and past mistakes or do whatever it takes.”

My friend caught the message. He could see that he had been trying to practice the technique at the surface but was not dealing with what would produce the power to practice it sincerely and consistently, regardless of the outcome.

So he returned to class for more learning and began to work on his feelings and motives. He soon started to sense a new attitude within himself. His feelings about his son turned more tender and sensitive and open.

He finally said, “I’m ready. I’m going to try it again.”

I said, “He’ll test your sincerity again.”

“It’s all right, Stephen,” he replied. “At this point I feel as if he could reject every overture I make, and it would be all right. I would just keep making them because it’s the right thing to do, and he’s worth it.”

That night he sat down with his son and said, “I know you feel as though I haven’t tried to understand you, but I want you to know that I am trying and will continue to try.”

Again, the boy coldly replied, “You have never understood me.” He stood up and started to walk out, but just as he reached the door, my friend said to his son, “Before you leave, I want to say that I’m really sorry for the way I embarrassed you in front of your friends the other night.”

His son whipped around and said, “You have no idea how much that embarrassed me!” His eyes began to fill with tears.

“Stephen,” he said to me later, “all the training and encouragement you gave me did not even begin to have the impact of that moment when I saw my son begin to tear up. I had no idea that he even cared, that he was that vulnerable. For the first time I really wanted to listen.”

And he did. The boy gradually began to open up. They talked until midnight, and when his wife came in and said, “It’s time for bed,” his son quickly replied, “We want to talk, don’t we, Dad?” They continued to talk into the early morning hours.

The next day in the hallway of my office building, my friend, with tears in his eyes, said, “Stephen, I found my son again.”

As my friend discovered, there are certain fundamental principles that govern in all human interactions, and living in harmony with those principles or natural laws is absolutely essential for quality family life. In this situation, for example, the principle my friend had been violating was the basic principle of respect. The son also violated it. But this father’s choice to live in harmony with that principle — to try to genuinely and empathically listen to and understand his son — dramatically changed the entire situation. You change one element in any chemical formula and everything changes.

Exercising the principle of respect and being able to genuinely and empathically listen to another human being are among the habits of highly effective people in any walk of life. Can you imagine a truly effective individual who would not respect and honor others or who would not deeply listen and understand? Incidentally, that is how you can tell if you have found a principle that is truly universal(meaning that it applies everywhere), timeless (meaning that it applies at any time), and self-evident (meaning that arguing against it is patently foolish, such as arguing that you could build a strong long-term relationship without respect). Just imagine the absurdity of trying to live its opposite.

The 7 Habits are based on universal, timeless, and self-evident principles that are just as true in the world of human relations as the law of gravity is in the physical world. These principles ultimately govern in all of life. They have been part of successful individuals, families, organizations, and civilizations throughout time. These habits are not tricks or techniques. They’re not quick fixes. They’re not a bunch of practices or “to do” lists. They are habits — established patterns of thinking and doing things — that all successful families have in common.

There are certain fundamental principles that govern in all human interactions, and living in harmony with those principles or natural laws is absolutely essential for quality family life.

The violation of these principles virtually guarantees failure in family or other interdependent situations. As Leo Tolstoy observed in his epic novel Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Whether we’re talking about a two-parent or a single-parent family, whether there are ten children or none, whether there has been a history of neglect and abuse or a legacy of love and faith, the fact is that happy families have certain constant characteristics. And these characteristics are contained in the 7 Habits.

One of the other significant principles my friend learned in this situation concerns the very nature of change itself — the reality that all true and lasting change occurs from the inside out. In other words, instead of trying to change the situation or his son, he went to work on himself. And it was his own deep interior work that eventually created change in the circumstance and in his son.


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