4 Keys to Listening for Understanding

People need to be heard.  There is a strong desire in all of us to know that others are listening to us, really listening. Listening for understanding is vital for true productive communication.

Most of us though, at least occasionally, fail to really listen during a conversion. Sometimes we get stuck on something said early on and fail to listen to the rest. We may be trying to think of what we are going to say next, how we should respond, move on to problem solving, or simply check out and get distracted. This can lead to frustration, conflict, relationship breakdown, and lack of communication.

So, how then do we listen, and show the other person that we are listening? By utilizing these four strategies, you can improve your listening skills in a way that significantly improves communication.

  1. Paraphrase/Summarize
  2. Ask Clarifying Questions
  3. Acknowledge Feelings/Impact
  4. Acknowledge Information New To You

Be intentional about letting the person know you heard them. As the other person is talking pay attention so that you can restate the key information back to them, to make sure you understood what they were communicating. This is especially helpful when it seems like the other person keeps going in circles, repeating the same point over and over again. That is an indicator that they don’t think they have been heard. Paraphrasing or summarizing back the key elements of what they have said, confirms that you have been listening.

As a mediator I often ask my clients to listen to the other party and then briefly paraphrase, without agreeing or disagreeing, what they heard. I then ask the person who was speaking if that is the information they wanted the other person to hear. It ensures that each person knows that they have been heard. It is the foundation for effective communication to know that you have been heard.

Effective communication takes effort, and requires understanding. In order to gain that understanding, ask clarifying questions. Clarifying questions are the how, what, when, and where details. “If we decided to move, when do you think is a good time?” “You would like to expand the business, what would that look like?” Be careful of why questions. They often come as more challenging than an indication that you are listening for understanding. “Why did you do that?”, puts people on the defensive. Instead try clarifying questions that bring out more information, so you are sure to have a complete picture.

In nearly every important conversation, there are emotions present. Acknowledging emotions lets the other person know that their feeling matter to you and that you are making an effort to understand them. It also communicate that what they have said has made an impression on you. “It sounds like you are excited about this potential opportunity.” “It sounds like this is important you.” It’s validating. Even when the emotions were already known to you, it is still useful to acknowledge them. “I’ve thought for a while that you were feeling frustrated with this policy, but I appreciate your honesty in sharing with me.” If you can tell there are strong emotions, but you can’t identify them, it is okay to ask clarifying questions regarding feelings too. It demonstrates the effort you are making to listen for understanding.  “I can tell you have strong emotions on this subject, can you help me to understand them a little better?” shows the value you are placing on their perspective.

In some cases, you might feel uncomfortable exploring feelings with the other person, especially if the relationship is business based. You can usually accomplish the same goal by acknowledging how a situation or event has impacted the other person. “It sounds like this has been inconvenient for you.” “It seems like this delay impacted your schedule.”

The odds are, if you are really listening during an important conversation, you will learn some new information. Tell the other person that. If that information changes something for you, tell them that too.

Many times our objective in a conversation is to find a solution to a problem. Don’t jump to that stage too quickly. Take the time to paraphrase, ask clarifying questions and acknowledge the feelings of the other person, and let the other person know what information is new to you. As you are demonstrating that you listening for understanding, you are more likely have effective communication.

Esther DeWitt, M.S., CAMS, is an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner specializing in conflict and leadership issues. As president of Conflict Navigation, her services include mediation, leadership and organizational consulting and training, anger management coaching, and curriculum and material development.

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Article Image:   The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “The courting stick.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860 – 1920. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4022-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99