sfwork logo

Lasting Results

"The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen R Covey

Review by Mark McKergow

This is an interesting and remarkable book. Firstly, it presents a model of the way in which highly effective people operate. Secondly, it contains no explicit reference to NLP. So what's the interest for readers of NLP World?

I'm sure I don't need to remind you that during the early days of NLP, even before it was so named, Richard Bandler and John Grinder set about discovering and modelling how particularly excellent people operated. They started to model psychotherapists, and built up not only a way of modelling, but also some general models about how their initial models acted effectively and helped their clients get results.

Stephen Covey has started with a different end in mind. He has focused on the ways in which people generate long term beneficial results for themselves and those around them (as opposed to getting your outcome NOW). Following a survey of the"success literature" published during the last 200 years, he produces a memorable and succinct model centred on seven key points, or "habits". Precisely which bits of the said literature he surveyed isn't clear, as the book contains no references or bibliography. I'm not sure whether he read any NLP books or not. However, the final product has some interesting similarities and some interesting differences to NLP.

The similarities are many. Covey bases his approach on a world of personal constructs, even quoting that "the map is not the territory". By encouraging and helping the reader to become aware not only of how they see the world, but also of the lens through which it is viewed, he starts to untangle how our paradigms shape our reality. He draws our attention to our ability to choose how to respond to certain stimuli or situations, in his words to be "proactive"or "reactive". From proactivity he moves through taking action over those things we can influence, taking resources from wherever, past reframing and into some basic language patterns. I particularly like way he introduces modal operators of necessity and possibility (that's must and can't, folks) as "reactive language", and encourages us to use alternatives like prefer and choose.

Establishing a "proactive" orientation takes about the first third of the book, and is well presented. The next third is basically about goal setting and prioritising actions to achieve the goals. Covey goes through personal goal setting in the form of thinking long term and constructing a personal mission statement, setting actions in a longer term context. His prioritisation methods are similarly based on longer than customary timescales - his basic unit of time management is a week, which may appeal to larger-chunk thinkers who have difficulty with more traditional daily small-chunk systems. Again, the NLP tenet of taking action, noticing the results and changing what you do are well to the fore, contained within a useful framework of one's own personal goals.

Up to this point, Covey has dealt with the would-be effective individual. He now considers the ways we interact with others. His model here puts forward win/win thinking and synergising with others and valuing differences. He deals with interpersonal communications under the headline "Seek to understand before being understood", thereby finding a way of introducing rapport, language, body talk, congruence and different perceptual positions without mentioning them. In fact, one of the very good points about this book is the way it introduces many ideas which make up NLP without submerging them in jargon or technicalities.

So, the book has much in common with NLP. What's different about it? Covey adds several aspects in his model of being highly effective which aren't commonplace in straight NLP. I particularly like his distinction between "production" (ie, doing something) and "production capability" (ie, taking time out from doing it to learn, maintain and improve the way you'll do it next time). Both of these things are important, and the balance of the two even more important. He applies this principle to physical and spiritual maintenance as well as intellectual and social. Similarly, Covey's metaphor of a relationship as an "emotional bank account", requiring deposits as well as withdrawals, I find helpful and illuminating.

Let's look at the differences the other way too. What might we expect to find in an NLP book which isn't here? Covey refers briefly to the left/right brain model and the desirability of using the whole brain, but he doesn't go into it in much detail, and I wonder whether the material presented here is enough on its own to help the reader actually do much. There isn't anything about internal state, either changing it or using it. However, the most notable difference is that Covey mentions nothing about sensory representations at all. No VAKOG, no submodalities, no "strategies", nothing. And yet there doesn't seem to be a gap in his model. I wonder if any other NLP developers have tried this approach? In some quarters at least the importance of the "VAK" in NLP is being reconsidered. I wonder how much of the NLP canon might be achieved without using it?

There may be other lessons for NLP developers in this book. The book is very well presented and put together, well indexed with an index of "problems/opportunities" which put me in mind of a Gideon Bible ("When what you're doing doesn't work, pp 15 - 45") as well as the more usual alphabetical index. Each chapter contains application suggestions, which offer an opportunity of doing some of the things mentioned. The book is easy to get around, find things in and, most importantly, do things differently and learn from. If only it were so more often.

Finally, remember that this is a model of highly effective people. Covey mentions throughout the book that highly effective people are "principle-centred", and act in accordance with their principles at all times. The principles, including honesty, integrity and fairness, are given as basic truths. NLP is carefully judgement-free, and this fact sometimes makes people nervous of it. Covey puts judgement and ethics, albeit broadly specified, in to his model from the start, which may help some people - and discourage others. Covey also claims that these principles lead to "correct maps" at several points, possibly indicating that he hasn't yet fully disentangled his own maps from the world. However, both these points are moderately pedantic and don't detract from the book as a useful resource.

Is Covey's model of effectiveness in people useful - yes, I think so. So apparently do the many people who've bought the book and are attending the increasingly widely available trainings based on it. If you want to learn therapy or psychojargon, or get certified with a piece of paper, this may not be the book for you. If you want some more choices about ways of acting effectively, expressed in everyday terms with lots of anecdotes and examples, then it's well worth investigating.

This review was originally published in NLP World, Volume 1, No 2, July 1994.