Listening to understand vs Listening to respond

   This communication topic is something that starts to fascinate me. The more I learn about it, the more I realize I am a novice at this. I’ll be paraphrasing Terrell Owens who said that we usually are waiting for the other person to stop talking so we can start expressing ourselves. Oh, it would be so good if we wait for that other person to stop talking (we sometimes love to interrupt our communication partner).

   If I think about it, listening to respond is not even listening. We hear some things and we start forming our response based on those things while ignoring others. We filter what we hear based on our core beliefs and we don’t take into consideration what that person is trying to say. We hear some words that trigger us even though it might have no importance for the person that uses them. I think that if we aren’t sure that we understood the message, we have no right to form an opinion about it.

   But how? How can we be sure that we truly understood the message? Well, by rephrasing and asking questions. Once the owner of the message agreed that what we think we understood it is indeed what that person tried to express, then we can start forming our opinion. It will probably take a little longer to do this whole communicating process better, but I believe it’s better to go into a deeper understanding than misunderstanding multiple topics. In time, once this becomes a habit, it will get easier and easier.

   Ok, so what does listening to understand means? I believe it means to pay attention to that communication partner whilst trying to silence our own thoughts because thoughts will come. They always come. It’s like Jim Carrey in the movie Bruce Almighty, if you’ve seen it. When we pay attention to our communication partner, we’ll start picking up the difference in tonality and the body language. Those are important as well because a change in tonality or a body shift while talking about a particular thing might mean something. It doesn’t mean that it does, but we can test it by asking additional questions about that particular thing. If we don’t listen, we cannot pick that up.

   How would you rate your communication skills?

67 thoughts on “Listening to understand vs Listening to respond

  1. I agree! Most people, as far as I am concerned, is not really good at listening to others, including me. Though I’ve read many articles about listening and communication, it’s always more difficult to put theory into practice than just know it. I tend to analyze, seek for solutions, even judge. My own experiences and knowledge have such profound effect on me that I use them to understand others instead of really listening and asking other people. It’s not easy to hone listening skills. I’m still on the way.

  2. This is actually so true and this is why I sometimes find it so hard to voice my opinions – because I feel like no one is really listening or actually cares. I think it is hard to listen to understand without thoughts popping into the head (it happens to me too) but if people become aware of it then hopefully they can change. I guess the world is just filled with either talkers or listeners and I’m not sure which it is better to be. I would say I’m more of a listener and I tend to pick up on things really easily, so I have all this information about other people. However they have very little about me. I suppose there can be good and bad things about this. Perhaps the world needs a mix of both talkers and listeners so that any decent conversation can happen at all

  3. DM, thanks for sharing this! Hopefully awareness will help us to improve our communications skills. Most people love to speak about their thoughts, opinions and experience. Listening is really important. I will try to listen with intention on a daily basis. Rephrasing is really great. Last week I had a couple of dialogues and I assume that those people felt more valued because I focused on listening and rephrasing. It’s very powerful because others will feel comfy with you and put trust in you if you carefully listen to their speech and rephrase it!

  4. Thank you! Omg someone is finally saying what I’ve been screaming out into the void. I helped my daughter formulate a speech about what makes an effective leader. And this is why people rise to power. They listen to the underdogs and the voices of the under represented help to elevate that person to power.

  5. Thanks for this! You are absolutely right. I tend to interrupt people when thoughts pop into my mind and it’s both unnoying and unfair. I often assume I know, or arrogantly presume to know, what the other person is trying to say before they’ve said it. I’m aware of it, but it’s difficult for me to just watch and listen. I can do it when I set my mind to it, but I’m still learning.

  6. Absolutely, even when people appear to be listening, they’re often just waiting for the right moment to jump in with their own opinion. I’ve worked hard on learning to listen, but I still catch myself doing that. Especially if the other person says something I disagree with – I’m waiting for the right moment to throw my opinion in there.

  7. A bit lengthy at the beginning but you nailed it at the end about the tonality. I can guess what my partner is going to say next just with tone of voice or the way she calls me. Many times we can listen without the other person uttering a single word. That is the level of understanding you can have the most. The worst way of communication is to be wilfully blind or rather deaf to what is happening in front of you despite it screaming at you loud and clear.

  8. That’s what we like to call “already always listening” meaning we are so busy forming our response that we don’t even hear what was actually being said. When I know to expect that from someone who always does this, I lose interest in talking with them. I know that I sometimes do this as well and is something I am really working on fixing in myself! Thanks for the reminder!

  9. I’m working on this myself, actually. Part of the anxious thinking was that I wasn’t comfortable with silence when I’m with others. Just to fill that silence I would talk and interrupt etc. I’ve gotten better about listening to understand but I want to get better about being ok with moments of silence when I’m with other people and not having to fill the ’empty space’ with something.

    I just read an article about taking a ‘pause’ or ‘breath’ before responding to someone, to practice being ok with more times of silence in conversations.

    1. These moments of silence in conversations are some interesting things. I’ll make a post about it. Thank you for the idea! 😀

  10. I sometimes think this is why so many of us love writing blogs, recording podcasts and videos and expressing ourselves in ways that avoid interruption. It’s funny, I work as a trainer and coach but still fail to listen well enough in my personal life. The more invested we are in the relationship and the outcome of the conversation, the more difficult it is to stand down and listen with total attention and curiosity. Thanks for this post. It’s a great reminder!

    1. Yes, it is very hard to stand down and “just” listen. This uninterrupted thing could be one of the reasons we love to express ourselves. It’s interesting how “the nothing” we face when we express ourselves is the best to make us feel liberated, don’t you think?

  11. Great thoughts! Communication in something everyone can afford to learn more about. With my personality, listening comes to me pretty easily. Talking is the hard part! Expressing myself accurately and partaking in a conversation rather than letting someone else do all the talking. That’s what’s really tough for me!

    Thanks for writing!
    -Mrs. B.

      1. Part of it is personality. I’m introverted and just not a people-person. Part of it is lack of practice. I usually just listen because it’s easier and thus don’t practice talking as much. 🙂

      2. I can relate with that. I’m also an introverted person and I found it very difficult to talk to people. Now it’s easier because I found it very interesting and useful to switch the topic to them by asking questions. Usually, when I get out of a conversation, I know lots about my conversation partner and he/she knows little to nothing by me and still we both would think that it was a great conversation. Talking doesn’t mean expressing. It can also mean show interest in that other person.

  12. I know that if someone is being aggressive or loud – I’m done. I’m not going to even try to talk to them because they’re just going to escalate. That’s my point of view, at least. I try to listen, and ask for clarification or a rephrasing from my communication partner. Then I can rephrase back, and we go from there. Good communication is so difficult, but it’s so worth the effort.

    1. I love that last phrase -> “Good communication is so difficult, but it’s so worth the effort.” I totally agree with that! It’s so natural because we learn it when we’re babies and yet it’s so difficult. It’s strange, don’t you think?

      1. I think we become conditioned not to communicate – shame, unwillingness to accept different points of view, peer pressure…. Whole lotta stupid “reasons” not to communicate openly.

  13. I’m terrible about listening to respond! I work on it daily. It is an essential skill as a litigator where we are expected to respond to everything! So, in the courtroom, I’ve learned to make quick notes as the other person is talking so that I can listen and get the big picture before responding. In my personal life, I just promise to do better every time I realize I’ve cut someone off or attempted to fill in their sentence. Great topic!

    1. Thank you! Sure, we need to respond, but not before we listen first so we make sure we have most (if not all) of the info available.

  14. This piece reminds me of the seminars and lectures we have to attend, and understand, and ask questions or give feedback (I suck at the last part and I know how important this is for the presenter/lecturer). One supremely tangled excercise in terms of ‘listening to understand’ and ‘listening to respond’..ugh! No idea how our teachers do it, pretty amazing…😶

  15. I’m usually a good listener; unless, as Big Happy Life states above, I’m too invested in the relationship and outcome of the conversation. The worst is when my daughter and I are talking. We both do it to each other–cutting each other off and interjecting our opinions before the other has finished. It’s like, we have to say what we’re thinking right when we’re thinking it or it will be lost.

    1. There is that method of holding a spoon or something for talking and whomever holds that spoon can talk and the others need to listen. Have you ever tried this?

  16. Yes, in a couple of groups I had been in years ago. In one, we had the speaking stone and, in the other, we had the talking stick. I had no problem talking with my sister the other night. We talked for 2 hours to resolve a huge falling out. We both gave each other the opportunity to speak on each point of contention without being interrupted before responding. Because we made the effort to have this kind of dialogue, we were able to reconcile our differences and come to an agreement that was mutually beneficial.

  17. I was thinking of that and was having a hard time trying to figure out how it would work. Then, I just got home and found a good sized, nice, smooth stick just laying there right by my front door. Thanks Universe 😊

  18. As an ECE I’m adept at rephrasing. When teaching and learning with two, three and four year olds, understanding is key. I often repeat what I hear and ask if that’s right. But I also ask, what did I say? to see if my directions etc. were understood.
    My (adult) daughters have accused me countless times in their lives of “treating me/us like your classroom babies” when I rephrase. It works though…I almost always understand them.
    In therapy with my husband we’re being ‘taught’ to rephrase. I’m giggling because I do it anyway. It’s been HUGE for us because we speak much differently, and rephrasing sometimes takes a try or two to get it just right. When it’s just right, it’s the loveliest feeling!

    Here’s something else about listening that I’ve learned (the hard way) especially when one of the people I love comes to me with problems or concerns. I listen, rephrase, and then ask the most important question. “Do you need me to help problem solve this, or am I just listening?” After a lifetime of helping my girls solve problems, sometimes they just want me to listen. Took me a REALLY long time to differentiate, and even still I’m never sure. So I always ask that question.
    Sometimes, this question is the most important a listener can ask.

    Thanks for a great post, DM!

    1. I love this! That’s the whole purpose! So we can have deeper and more meaningful interactions and questioning is a great tool as well! Thank you for sharing!

  19. My skills need work. It is about all ic and do to just keep my yap shut before responding. You are right, my brain is yelling all the interruptions I would lover I make to just respond the this thought and then the next. It is hard and a skill that needs to be honed.

    1. Yes, it’s hard because we’re used to a certain mindset and some thoughts come easier than others, but the change can be done if we manage to put in the required work.

  20. Absolutely agree, and I believe that it’s now a common practice, whether it’s your life partner, your school/college/university/office colleges or your parents, unfortunately, it’s true and I’m a victim of it. I face this situation on daily basis. Whenever I’m in communication with someone, often in anger, people take my words in account and judge me on that, rather making an effort, sit down and have a heart to heart communication on why I’m upset, and also ‘listen to understand’ as you quote it.
    And I also agree to the point that observing body language, gestures, voice tone helps you get to the real point the other person is trying to make.
    However, as for your question in the last line , how I rate my communication ? I would say when I was in university, I was among the coolest communication partners, people can talk to me easily, as I was a really great listener, at that time too, I mostly listen to respond, but also ,

    1. Before making and sealing my opinion about my communication partner, I also waited to ‘listen to understand’ so at a ratio from 1 to 10 as 10 the highest , I’ll rate my communication to be 9, but now I believe it has depreciated to 4. And I definitely need to improve, GREAT article, thought provoking, keep inspiring, Regards.

      1. Not sure, maybe because now I don’t give myself time, Every person at some point of life, face some failures/ rejections that make him/her hard at heart, and that also happened to me, I guess… I stopped explaining myself, refrained myself from any communication, any challenges, as I’m afraid to get failure again… started living a plain, routine life, refraining myself from living a lofe of my dreams as my dreams could shatter someone else expectations/traditions. Now it’s just me, my routine work and my room where I try to do my catharsis doing things I love…. and maybe because it has been a long time living such suffocated life that it made me hard inside, thus my communication depreciated….

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