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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