Listening to Understand

By Terri Klein

April 9, 2021

Do you consider yourself to be a good communicator? Do you carefully choose your words when you speak? Do you listen to understand or are you simply waiting to reply? Perhaps one day you should ask those who are frequently in conversation with you, their thoughts.

According to the research, interpersonal relationships have been hard hit during this global pandemic. Immersed in this COVID chapter for more than a year, it is quite apparent that many of us are feeling more stressed, anxious, and reactive—more judgmental and critical—and therefore less kind and compassionate. This cannot help but get communicated in our relationships. 

An Anxious Habit Loop that Continues to Get Reinforced

     Trigger: Chronic uncertainty & intense feelings like fear, anxiety, and grief

     Behavior: Being reactive, rude, unkind—and less attentive to other people

     Result: Distance & disconnection between people, guilt & shame around undignified behavior, and more looping anxiety

A Basic Human Need 

We are all relational by nature. We all subconsciously crave to feel seen, heard, understood, and safe. We want people to listen to us, to pay attention to our needs, to care about what matters to us. We want people to listen without accusing, defending, blaming, and/or wanting something different.

A Listener’s Natural Tendency 

Listening is an active process that comes far less naturally to us than talking. But most of us “listeners” have never really been taught how to listen. And so, without realizing it, we are filtering our listening with our own personal agendas, biases, and defenses. According to the research, there is no greater challenge than that of listening without defensiveness, especially when we don’t want to hear what the other person is saying.

Our natural tendency is to listen in order to interject—we are simply waiting to find fault, to prove something, get something, fix something, or to be right and defend something. This type of listening has been referred to as “predatory listening.” 

Unfortunately, our tendency to listen defensively greatly diminishes our ability to connect with, understand, and heal one another. And the costs of this kind of “disconnected” relating can be high. Many of us are currently experiencing some of these real-life consequences now in COVID time—lockdown #3. 

What Others Have Said About Listening

Mark Nepo says that to listen is to lean in softly with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.

Winnie the Pooh says that if the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear. 

Non-Defensive Listening

Most of us probably have some degree of “fluff” in our ears, but nonetheless, we all have the capacity for deeper listening. It is a skill that we can cultivate, and it is one that has a significant impact on our interpersonal relationships.

Think about a difficult conversation you’ve recently had with someone—with you being on the receiving end of their criticism. Contrary to defaulting into predatory listening, imagine being able to listen more deeply by using any or all of the following strategies. These strategies will help you to create psychological safety for the other person, helping them to feel seen and heard, and, most importantly, understood.

  • Recognize when you’re getting defensive: Catch yourself listening for something in particular: e.g., something you disagree with or something you want to fix, etc.
  • Practice conscious breathing: Notice when your body is feeling tight, tense, and on guard and practice deep breathing.
  • Listen to understand: Try hard to not interrupt, argue, correct facts, or bring up your own criticisms or complaints. Focus only on asking questions around things you don’t understand. Be curious, but don’t judge or cross-examine.
  • Find common ground: Find something that you can agree with.
  • Apologize when necessary: Apologizing shows that you are capable of taking responsibility and ownership. This will help to shift the exchange from a combative one into a more collaborative one. 
  • Set boundaries: Have limits in place and never tolerate disrespect or unkindness. If boundaries are being crossed, then pause, and offer to continue the conversation at another time.

More Than a Year at Home with Your Family:

The spiritual leader Ram Dass once said, “If you think you’re enlightened, spend a week with your family.” Similarly, it has been said that family is the final frontier of spiritual progress. 

Many of us have been alone during this pandemic, while many of us have also spent more than a year at home with our family. And this has not been easy.

We could all benefit from learning how to deepen our listening to become more conscious communicators. And although there is so much for us to learn and master in this area, learning how to listen to better understand each other is a great place to start. 


Coach Terri

1 Comment

  1. Terri 🙂

    What a beautiful reminder of what its like to be human… living in a world, a little spun out of control. Listening is really so important right now. We all have our questions , thoughts and ideas! But the listening is the part missing…where you can quietly rise above the chaos, with the understanding that we are all in the same boat! We just react differently to fear, pressure and accusations. When you seriously develop your listening skills, it is a form of calm in itself.

    Thank you Coach Terri for giving us another way to breathe in fresh air and thoughts, and ground ourselves, by just learning to listen 🙂

    Debbie Armstrong


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