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Listening to Understand vs Listening to Respond (Reading Time: 4 mins)

Listen to Understand, Not to Respond

One of the main issues that individuals and couples seek counselling for is #communication. This word encompasses so much and, by virtue of its definition, requires more than one person. To have effective communication, we need a sender and a receiver, and each individual plays a crucial role.

I recall a time years ago when I was teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. I had only been in the country a short amount of time and knew very little Korean. My employer invited all of the staff out to a dinner one evening, and I accepted wholeheartedly to throw myself into the discomfort and embrace learning about the culture more.

While at dinner, I did not speak very much as I was the only foreign teacher at the table. I realized that I had nothing to respond or provide to the conversation and so I was able to really just pay attention. I watched the communication of others, the context in which they were speaking, the body language of each speaker and receiver, and the tone that was used in the voice. I was amazed at how much I could perceive through this simple practice of being completely present in my listening and trying to understand. Every once in a while, someone would check in with me to see if I understood and I would relay back what I thought was occurring and they ‘accused’ me of understanding Korean.

This was such an amazing lesson that truly reflects the message and theme of this posting. So often when we are engaged in a conversation with someone, we are waiting our turn to respond and inject whatever ‘amazing’ insight or knowledge we have that we feel is important for the other person to hear in that moment. However, once we have decided on our response, we are often guilty of ‘turning our ears off’ and not hearing anything else that is conveyed with any real awareness. This takes us out of the conversation with the other person and can allow them to feel invalidated, unheard, misunderstood, and even frustrated.

Think about a time when you had a conflict with someone in the past. How often was there a need for effective communication either in the avoidance of the conflict being created or necessary to a come to a resolution? My guess is 100% of the time at some point, healthy communication that was equal and respectful was required.

In my industry, we use the term #activelistening as a catch all for this. Active listening captures several different components of communication both verbal and nonverbal. For example:


1. Eye contact – give the speaker eye contact mixed with some of the other components below so that you are not intimidating with unwavering eye contact the entire time.

2. Posture – lean toward the speaker so that the speaker understands that you are attentive to them.

3. Mirroring – automatic reflection or mirroring of facial expression, meaning that this is done without thought and not forced as a way to show understanding and empathy.

4. Removing distraction – give the speaker your undivided attention. Remove distractions such as televisions, phones, playing with your hair, fidgeting etc.


1. Positive Reinforcement – casual or frequent insertions of words like ‘yes’, ‘uh-huh’, ‘mmhmm’, etc. can really be powerful in letting the speaker know that you are actively paying attention.

2. Reflection – reflecting back what you are hearing such as: ‘sounds like that was a very difficult moment for you!’, or ‘wow, seems like you were really excited to hear back from your partner!’

3. Clarifying – this is simply asking questions to ensure that you are understanding the message that they are trying to convey in a non judgemental and objective way.

4. Summarization – take a moment to summarize what you heard from the speaker over the past few minutes to illustrate that you really heard them.

These are a few skills that you can be aware of and work on in order to increase your active listening.

But what does it mean to listen to understand and how is that different and what will it produce differently than the above? Active listening is one piece of the puzzle in how we listen to someone physically, but the next step is to really allow them to feel understood.

There is a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh that has done a great deal of work on how listening is one of the most powerful and healing tools we have. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Nhat Hanh speaks to ‘compassionate listening’ and how this can bring transformation and healing. Check out the link here for a great clip of the interview.

Nhat Hanh states: …you can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty [their] heart. Even if [they] say things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help [them] to correct [their] perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, [they lose their] chance. You just listen with compassion and help [them] to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.

So much #conflict is borne out of #misunderstanding and invalidation of people’s experience and needs. So when we begin to listen to understand, we are essentially giving #validation in the way of our attention. When I choose to try to understand something, my mind shifts to a place of asking questions differently, to really trying to listen more deeply, and my need to insert whatever ‘genius insight’ I have, lessens. As this occurs, there is a deeper connection created between the speaker and the listener, which can then create compassion and empathy for the other person.

In my own experience, I have discovered how important it is to feel truly heard and validated for what my experience has been and to be heard. It has created stronger bonds and intimacy with those close to me as a a result and allows me to then truly give that gift of listening to understand back to the other person.

It may seem counterintuitive that by listening to truly understand someone else, I am creating a culture between us that I will be more likely to be heard as well rather than trying to insert myself into the conversation so that I can share my thoughts right away. It becomes a two way street where if one one feels heard, then they are much more likely to hold the same space to hear me. This is why this becomes so important within conflict amongst family members and couples.

Quick Tips for Listening to Understand

1. Do no Interrupt – what better way to make it someone feel that they are not being heard than to interrupt them?

2. Provide Empathy – allow the person to know that you can understand how they are feeling and that you can identify with the emotions that they have. This does not mean that you agree, or know exactly what they are going through, but that you can understand how it may feel.

3. Ask Open Ended Questions – create space for the person to give you the information rather than leading them to the information you want them to have. For example: ‘did that make you feel sad?’ Vs ‘what feelings did that bring up for you?’

4. Be Present – Be completely there for the conversation and allow all of your attention to be given to the speaker.

5. Question Your Need to Reply – what is your intention of replying? Why does it feel important or urgent? What is the likely response from your question? Is this for your own needs and ego, or will it truly add value to the conversation and speaker’s life?

I had a close friend once express that her daughter had been caught cheating on an exam at school. She and the father were livid. The daughter was a high achiever and consistently received high grades in all her coursework and exams. She was in the final year of high school and so there was pressure to do well for university entrance. My friend was so angry and she had no idea how she would initiate the conversation, but she knew that she didn’t want to just yell and express the anger in ways that felt normal as they believed that wouldn’t get the outcome they desired.

I encouraged her to ask her daughter, ‘what was it that made you decide to cheat on the exam?’ She was a little unsure at first. I encouraged her to wait until her and her daughter’s father were both ready to be able to hear the reasons and to react in a way that displayed no anger but truly the ability to just hear her and then once they hear the reasoning, to let the daughter know that they needed time to think and would decide what steps to take and not act reactively.

They spoke before approaching their daughter and agreed to the plan. It turned out that the daughter’s friend was feeling highly stressed about the exam and was fearful of what would happen if she failed and so she had asked if the daughter would mind if she looked at her paper during the exam as they sat beside each other. The daughter, out of compassion and kindness (albeit maybe not properly directed) agreed so that her friend could experience a lessening of distress as it was having an effect on her friend’s mental health.

The parents were able to hear the story, understand the daughter’s motives and have a very open and productive conversation with her and they had planned to also intact the other girl’s parents to let them know how much stress the other young woman was experiencing.

This was a moment when it was so very helpful for them and allowed them to use effective #parentingskills to move things forward in a productive way.

By starting to consciously focus on truly listening to others and not seeking ways to highlight or prove who is right or wrong, or to share your own story, we are taking the first steps toward #healthycommunication, #conflictresolution, and #healthyrelationships.

Communication is a key component to all #healthierrelationships and if you or someone you know is seeking assistance in wanting to develop or amplify their communication skills, then reach out for a free consult and we can chat about how counselling can help!

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