Listening to understand

In our everyday conversations, most of us often listen to respond, not to understand. It seems to be the default mode for the majority of people. This is not the type of listening that helps deal with conflict. We need to abandon our normal habits, focus on the speaker and maintain a sense of curiosity. Usually, we are so keen to get our point of view across that we take the first opportunity to jump in and make what we see as our contribution to keep the conversation going.

Something magical happens when we suspend our normal way of listening, give the speaker our full attention, and wait until they have fully shared their experience, opinion or idea. Doing so relieves the person talking of the need to cram what they want to say into a limited amount of time. This frees them to express themselves at a comfortable pace in the knowledge that they are not going to be cut short because they will be interrupted, or the conversation will get diverted onto another subject if they pause.

Providing this sense of space to speak means that the speaker has a chance to hear what they are saying. It is not uncommon for the person talking to later say such things as, “I heard myself saying … that was when I realised…”. The speaker will often change what they think once they have spoken it out, upon realising that what they had said is not what they really meant or really wanted to say. The space and time given to the person talking thus allows them to refine their views and perspectives.

Listening to another person has a positive effect on both parties during a difficult conversation. It fulfils a basic human need to be heard. It also provides space for the person listening to reflect. Each time our basic needs are fulfilled it creates a positive reaction for us that makes us feel good and builds trust. More on this later.