Why it is Important to Listen to Understand


Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. ~Margaret J. Wheatley

It is time once again to pull the curtain away from myself and allow you to learn more about me in order to hopefully help others. Last year, I embarked on a new educational journey to become a Certified Coach in several areas. My first intent was certainly that I wanted to become a Certified Coach to help others learn to rebuild their self-esteem after a trauma like bullying or abuse, but also selfishly to learn to listen to understand. I was terrible at listening to understand and that is the skill needed to truly help others and become an empathic individual whose goal is to help and heal.

I feel like I already hear the next question, which is “what does listen to understand” mean. I’m sure some of you know and some of you don’t know what the meaning is. In the end, there are two ways you can listen when someone is talking to you (well really three ways, but we’ll get into that later). Of course, this has been studied and Let’s go over the first two:

LISTENING TO REPLY – This is what most of us do. We believe that everytime someone talks to us, it is meant to be a back and forth conversation. In lots of cases, this is true. If the conversation is light, funny or yes, gossipy than you are probably wanting to listen to reply. You know this feeling. It’s when someone is talking and something you want to say pops into your head. Your something is usually a sympathetic response or your agreement or disagreement with what the other person is saying. Many times, you may actually interrupt the other person, because a point you want to say popped into your head and you are afraid that the thought will disappear if you don’t get it out (by the way, this gets annoying really fast for the other person). So, listening to reply is our instinctual way of thinking of conversation. You believe that conversation is a two-way concept and you have an equal right to talk as does the person who is talking. This can be fine, as long as your awareness of the conversation is the same as the other person and you “are not interrupting” everything they say, because, in any communication, that is just wrong. Of course, it is easy to say and very hard to do.

LISTENING TO UNDERSTAND – This is what most of us don’t do because we view conversation as an equal balance of what someone has to say and what I have to say. But when dealing with a difficult conversation, in particular, this is what and why I selfishly wanted to study coaching, because the crux of it is the idea to listen to understand. When you listen to understand, you do it with no judgment, with responses that are empathic, such as repeating what you heard the person say and in some cases adding a little dialogue that makes the person know you heard them and understand what they are telling you. You never interrupt someone (so you usually have something to write with in order to read from in a reply). And sometimes, you are just an ear, that has no need to reply to the other person, but to listen. In many cases, there is a quiet moment before your reply as you are either reading notes of what you heard or contemplating how you will reply back to the person with what you believe you heard them say.

As you read these two definitions of listening, I’m guessing you can see that listening to understand in many cases is not the natural way that we view conversation or active listening with another person. That’s fine because we are born and taught to listen to reply. That is what a typical friendly conversation is about. We must learn to listen to understand and not everyone gets this concept or has the empathic abilities (which must be taught as well) to listen to understand.

Sometimes a story here helps clarify, so here’s a story that someone shared with me that points out what happens when you consistently user the wrong listening method. I was working with a person who was angry about a situation at work. They had spent 20 years working in a small office with another person. They considered the person they worked with a friend and knew about the other person. They shared with me the struggle that the other person went through because they could not get pregnant, so they adopted a child and then as if by magic, they got pregnant when they were in their 40s and had their own child. My client shared with me many things this person shared with them over 20 years. So they were listening to them and this is important to understand for the next part.

3 months before my client was to retire, they announced to the company that they would be retiring. Upon hearing that, the person that they had shared an office with for 20 years stopped talking to my client. Nothing, not a peep. A few things I left out before telling you this. My client is a talker. They also love to brag (yes brag) about all the successes of them and their children. I say brag because another element of understanding in a conversation is that when someone asks you how your kids are doing, you respond with their successes. This is fine. But when you start a conversation off by telling someone how your kids are doing without them prompting you to do so through a question, in many cases the other person interprets this as bragging or sometimes just whining.

OK, back to the story. So, my client comes to me very upset. They hate it when they feel like they aren’t being heard and because their co-worker isn’t talking to them, you can imagine they are quite upset because not only are they feeling they are not heard, but also they feel like their co-worker does not hear what they are saying. This drives my client nuts.

As I had practiced doing, in order to become someone that coaches others, was to listen to this person to understand, without judging the situation and without replying to them with my own personal thoughts or stories. I simply replied with what I heard and asked the person if I was correct in what they were saying. When they agreed, we worked together to see if there was a way they could have the co-worker tell them why they no longer talked to them. After coming up wth that plan my client left.

A week later, I met with my client again. They were still upset over the situation, but now they had an answer. I asked my client to talk to their co-worker in a way that used listening to understand skills. After a few tries doing this, the co-worker told them why they stopped talking to my client. Of course, my client didn’t like the answer. The co-worker told my client that, for 20 years, every time they started to tell my co-worker something going on in their lives, my co-worker would interrupt them and (in their opinion) need to brag or add their opinion about what they co-worker said. My client’s co-worker was a good person and felt they put up with this interrupting LISTEN TO REPLY method from my client for 20 years, but it upset them greatly because they never thought they were being heard.

It’s important here to remember that my client did hear them because they shared with me all the things going on in their co-worker’s life. But this isn’t about what you hear, it’s about HOW you hear. Because my client never practiced any listening to understand and was always listening to reply for 20 years, their co-worker resented them and when my client announced their retirement, the co-worker took the opportunity to finally say to themselves that they would no longer share with my client, because to the co-worker, my client didn’t hear them and would just brag further about something in their own life. That was the crux of the problem. If my client had practiced LISTENING TO UNDERSTAND at the right moments with their co-worker, this would not have happened. Unfortunately, it happens all the time.

So the story is a lesson that we all need to learn to LISTEN TO UNDERSTAND at times of critical conversation. This is important to parents, school staff, and really anyone that wants to be a mentor to another person. As I talk about bullying often, when a young person, in particular, is opening up about being bullied or abused, it is critical to listen to understand, even though your instinct tells you that you want to listen to reply. This happens because all of us instinctually want to try to solve a situation as quick as possible. But many times, the person you are talking to just wants to know they are heard and that there is someone who is not judging them, but understanding them. I’m sure that I’ll write further on this, as it is a journey that I am still on as well. It is work to listen to understand, but you will find that people will trust and share with you (if that’s what you want) as you practice it more. It’s not easy, but it is life changing for both you and the person you are listening to.

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About bullyingrecovery

Alan Eisenberg is a Certified Life Coach with a niche in bullying and abuse recovery, Bullying Recovery activist, and author of "A Ladder In The Dark: My journey from bullying to self-acceptance". and "Crossing the Line". He has been writing and speaking to various audiences about the issue of C-PTSD and Bullying Recovery. Mr. Eisenberg has been featured on several print, radio shows and podcasts on this issue, including NPR and in the Boston Globe
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