How to utilise the Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits as a process for effective conflict management and coaching conversations

Running a project within a Corrections environment is a great testing ground for your conflict management theory and practice and for your own self-awareness, particularly about what triggers you into judgement and disapproval. Just having a coaching conversation with an incarcerated person can be tricky on many levels, but most often because in many cases their behaviour and opinions will be violent, bullying, self-serving, confrontational, and a clear continuance of the attitudes and behaviour that landed them inside in the first place.

Here is a case in point. Andy was angry and spoiling for a fight with his in laws who were seeking custody of his four-year-old son. Andy was intending to lawyer up and “stick it to them” and it was clearly very satisfying to him to be engaged in a battle that was all about his rights and he could play the victim and justify his anger.

If it was an ordinary conversation, my comments would very likely to have been judgemental, to look out for his son’s interests and have a reality check about the situation he is actually in, viz., four more years to serve for drug related violent crimes.

Fortunately, Andy had read Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a book I made a present of for all my students. I did this to counter what I considered to be a deficit model of dealing with inmates.

All of my students were Indigenous Australians, mainly Koories in Victoria but also other groups from interstate. By the deficit model I mean that they were typically lined up in front of someone a bit like me, European heritage, employed, comfortable, no massive life challenges and with the advantages of a stable and loving upbringing. Then we proceed to list the deficits – drug and alcohol use, violent behaviour, poor social skills, limited education, little vocational experience and welfare dependence, after which we identify the fixes, viz., drug and alcohol rehabilitation, anger management programs and so on, the assumption being that at the end of the process they will be a little more like us/me and might qualify for parole. Their involvement in those programs will be grudging at best. This attitude is pretty much summed up in the guiding mindset of the institutions, namely, Corrections, which implies an imposition to a conformity to at least a minimal model of civic citizen. My mindset was coaching, which might have the same goal, but will work to uncover, enhance and develop the underlying potential of the client.

Covey’s 7 Habits, on the other hand, could be presented as a professional self-development book and process, it had sold 30 million plus copies, most CEOs around the worked were familiar with it, it had been of enormous benefit to me, and so it was likely they also could learn something from it. There was no judgement around the suggestion that they might benefit from the study of this principled approach to developing an effective life. And, in some cases it genuinely was life transforming.

But, how precisely do the 7 Habits fit into the MetaSkill conflict management process? One version of the process has 4 stages:

  1. Confront the person and the issue
  2. Implement a process
  3. Understand the person and the issue
  4. Collaborate on the solution.

In many cases it is Step 2 that is most important, the requirement that the person you are dealing with willingly sign up to a conflict resolution process, which might be a simple as calming down and having a reasonable discussion, or it might be accepting formal mediation. In this case because we had previously agreed that Covey’s 7 Habits was a pretty good guide to how principled people should behave, therefore we could structure the conversation around those principles. So, as we had an agreed process, Step 2 could be implemented.

For those of you who are bit rusty on your 7 Habits, here is a quick reminder:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Always begin with the end in mind
  3. First things first
  4. Think win win
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  6. Synergy
  7. Sharpen the saw.

As is often the case, Habit 5 was the best starting point, viz., a letter to his in laws indicating that he appreciates that they might have some concerns about his ability and commitment to parenting and detailing the efforts that he was making to turn his life around. If they were prepared to articulate their concerns, he would do his best to meet those concerns. Habit 5 tick.

Because we had a process in place, I was able to comfortably say things like, “Well Andy, you are in prison for another 4 years for a violent drug related offence, so any reasonable person would be justified in having some concerns about your parenting commitment and ability!” Which he was forced to grudgingly accept. Because of the process, there is no implied judgement on my part, simply a nudge towards the obvious steps that need to be taken if we were to move towards a cooperative or collaborative resolution.

Andy initially objected that they would just put the letter in the bin. Again, we discussed that this was about the process first, not the outcome which is not in our control. What is in our control is acting with integrity and authenticity, and, in any case, if he did end up in court, he would be in a stronger position having initially owned his previous behaviour and looked for a collaborative solution that was in the best interests of his son.

And now the rest of the habits fall into place. In taking responsibility for his situation, Andy is being proactive. Habit 1 tick. We discussed whether this is about his ego or his son’s welfare, and so recalibrated according to the proper end in mind. Habit 2 tick. The letter was the first thing, whether or not it was successful. Habit 3 tick. If Andy was able to leave prison and work, he would need assistance, so to aim for a sharing arrangement for custody with his in laws would tick the win win and the synergy boxes. In engaging in this process Andy was sharpening the saw, making himself more able to act with responsibility and accountability in the world. Habit 7 tick.

And Andy is also moving through the 4 stages of the MetaSkill Conflict Management Process, confronting his in laws and their issue, requesting that they become part of a process to resolve the issue, seeking to fully understand their position and undertaking to work towards a collaborative solution in the best interests of all, particularly the best interests of the son.

This painting was done by one of Andy’s colleagues, the cross-syringes representing friends lost to drugs.


The most common response from students who studied Covey’s 7 Habits was:

“If I had known this stuff before I would never have ended up in here.”

And again, this was a very important lesson for me – it taught me that before I judge a person’s character, I should check if they have the information required to be an effective and principled citizen. Many of my students were simply modelling what they had been taught, and had simply not been exposed to a better way of being in the world. It is one of the reasons that Islam can be popular in prisons – it offers a clear, structured and disciplined principled way of being in the world.

To make the point that the case described above was not a one off, here are a few more successes.

Les had rung complaining that he wasn’t getting on with his tutor and suggesting that that the relationship needed to be terminated. I asked him to think about challenges that he would inevitably be confronting in his professional life as a social worker and that this was the sort of challenge, viz., managing difficult relationships, that he would have to deal with.

When we met again we had the 7 Habits as a common language. Having that language we were able to discuss his issues in terms such as Always Begin with the End in mind. This meant that we were immediately focused on our goals, on what he had already decided was really important, viz. his studies and becoming a social worker. Then his relationship with the tutor was clearly a minor distraction to achieving his main goal, and he was able to accept and work with the difficulty as it was necessary for the attainment of his main goal. The discussion with the 7 Habits, in this case critically involving always beginning with the end in mind, facilitated the appreciation of the bigger picture, and a clear understanding of necessary next steps.

Without the common language we can only assume that we would have talked around the issue and it would of centred on the particulars of that relationship. In this case, Les knew what was required. Incidentally, he had also complained about how difficult it was to work in that particular prison, but in that case recognised immediately that he was being reactive and needed to be proactive and to distinguish between his circle of influence and his circle of concern.

Martin told me that he had real issues with his Parole Officer and that the next day he would be requesting a change of officer. He was calm; he believed that her attitude to him was inappropriate and that he was well within his rights to demand a change.

As he was entering into a process, we applied the 7 Habits as a stencil. It was clear that Martin was being Proactive (habit 1) and taking responsibility for doing something about the situation. In going through the constructed conversation, habit 2, begin with the end in mind and habit 3, First Things First, were straightforwardly being applied. But, however justified his actions, they were going to result in a confrontational situation, which it would be best to avoid.

Again, it was habit 5, seek first to understand, then to be understood, which gave us the greatest insight into an effective approach. Brainstorming a 7 Habits approach, and applying seek first to understand, it was suggested that instead of asking for a change of parole officer, Martin simply ask for information upon how to effect such a change. In this way a potentially confrontational situation, which might at the very least evoke some defensiveness, was avoided. There was no need for critical comment about his parole officer to be made unless asked for. This easily led into a win win scenario as no criticism of any person needed to be offered, so no face was lost. Synergy is present as Martin was effectively working towards the best possible relationship with Community Corrections, i.e., the relationship that allows them to mutually achieve all their goals. In becoming more practiced at these negotiations, Martin is also sharpening the saw.

In the event, the supervisor was very impressed with Martin’s approach and so the whole exercise, which might be expected to sour relationships between the parties concerned, strengthened the relationship and contributed to its likely success.

Leo, recently released after 14 years imprisonment, went to the appropriate help agencies and was very excited when he was told that he would be placed in the head of the emergency housing list. A week later it was explained to him that this meant that he might get housing in 12 to 18 months. As he explained to me, all his panic buttons went off, and he very nearly lost it. But he took a deep breath and asked to speak to the person in the organisation who was most successful in gaining housing. Or, to put it in the language of conflict management and the 7 Habits, he moved to a process and he was proactive, having managed his overwhelming reactive response. When Leo was introduced to her, he asked what was it that made her successful clients successful: how did they dress, what did they say, and he also asked what made the unsuccessful, unsuccessful.

First things first, he was gathering information and seeking to better understand all aspects of successfully achieving his goal. His approach so enthused the staff that they went out of their way to help, and he had private housing within a week, without reference to his referees. It was a great win win and synergistic outcome. The whole episode is a testament to the power of taking responsibility, and seeking first to understand others, and avoid what was previously Leo’s default, namely, to blow up and demand the attention of others, and blame everyone else if it didn’t work out.

Early in this project, which was providing educational opportunities to incarcerated Koories in response to the royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, I had to grapple with the conundrum that to be successful, I needed to develop a trusting relationship with individuals who may have committed crimes that I abhorred, and who had left victims in their wake with whom I sympathised. The judgemental mode I was in undermined my ability to authentically build a trusting relationship with my clients. As Covey says, where there is judgement there will be no understanding.

The solution came to me while thinking about the Hero’s Journey, and I realised that everyone is on a life journey, and my responsibility was not to judge, but to facilitate my client’s ability to take the next positive step in their journey. This realisation gave me great clarity and the ability to get on with the job, with a clear end in mind and great clarity about the next steps to be taken. On the few occasions where I believed the client had no intention of taking positive steps, I excluded them from the program, and had the clarity of mission to be confident in those decisions.

So, what have we learned? For me these stories are confirmation that in an effective conflict management process it is essential it implement and get agreement to a process, and that Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits are an excellent principled and non-contentious framework for that process is demonstrated by the fact that it has proven to be effective even with people whose life choices have landed them in prison.