It’s important to say, right at the outset of this blog, that I don’t believe that listening to understand is an obligation. In fact, this method of communication actually requires the listener to decide, or consent, to understanding the other person in the first place.
We don’t always have to ask someone, “can I understand you more”; we can just speak to engage, and then they get to choose whether they actually want to share with you, or whether they want to answer your question.
The opportunity to understand is always there, but we have to choose whether we consent to taking that opportunity and embarking on that journey of understanding the other person.
That being said, listening to understand can be a powerful way of relating to other people, and can transform all of your relationships (even those with strangers on the internet).
Assessing your fluid capacity to understand
The decision to engage with someone, with the goal of listening to understand, can be based on many inputs. Do I have the resources right now to enter into this topic (with this person)? Do I have the capacity to have this conversation, knowing that it might be emotionally taxing? Do I have the physical time to commit to understanding this person now, in this moment, or part of my day? Do I even want to? Do I care enough about my relationship with this person to make it worth it to work our way through this conversation? All of these factors could affect your ability to listen to understand at a given moment.
In answering these questions, it is essential that we be honest with ourselves, and recognize that it is truly okay to not want to listen to understand someone (right now, or ever).
It is okay to not have the capacity to take on the emotional load of that conversation. You are not obligated to listen to understand someone just by nature of them speaking with you, or trying to engage with you in some way. Just because you post something on social media does not mean that you are obligated to be available to engage with everyone who responds, from a place of listening to understand. It’s important to internally make that choice.
On the other side, if we want to be understood, it is helpful to explicitly ask for, or acknowledge that – especially when we are coming at a topic from opposite perspectives.
This can be as simple as saying, “I would like to share something with you, and I would like you to listen to me in order to understand. Can you do that?”
We need to ask for that and simply set it up so the other person knows what we’re asking for, and has the capacity – and the opportunity – to say yes or no. Otherwise, we set ourselves both up for disappointment and frustration.
Listening to understand a partner
This concept applies not just to situations where you’re arguing with someone about politics, or current events, or social injustices, but also to your intimate relationships. If our partner is expressing annoyance and our immediate reaction is to be defensive and corrective – telling them how they are wrong about their assumptions, or that things didn’t happen the way they are expressing them to have occurred – then we aren’t really trying to listen to understand.
There’s an important step we can take here – we can pause, step back, and consider that, even if what they’re saying isn’t how we think it happened, there’s still something true or worth understanding about what they’re expressing & their feelings. That’s what we’re actually trying to understand.
Sometimes, we need to set aside our own need to be understood in order to understand another person. And, if we can’t do that, then we may not be in a place to listen to understand (yet).
Before the conversation can continue, we have to do the work to shift our own mindset, to get to that place where we can understand our partners without needing to be understood ourselves.
This is not to say that you should never be understood, but rather, that for the duration of the conversation at hand, you need to set yourself up so that you can give your partner the attention and openness they deserve. This can include asking them to listen to you at a separate time, after you’ve resolved their side of the issue!
These conversations rarely go well for anyone when one partner claims to have the space to listen, but actually needs to be heard, feels defensive, over-tired, or distracted.
Think about what it actually takes to step into this conversation, and be brutally honest about your ability to contribute in an open, caring manner. Then, once you’re in this space, you can begin to listen to understand the other person.
This is generally a four-step process.
Step 1: Listen without defending
When you internally consent to have that conversation, the very first step is to listen. Let them talk and don’t interrupt, don’t defend your point of view. The purpose of this step is to give the other person the opportunity to say everything that’s on their mind without having to field questions, corrections, or interjections of any kind.
Even if you disagree with the fundamental point of what they’re saying, you must let them actually say it so that you can find common ground from which to have a conversation.
Step 2: Check that you actually heard them correctly
The next step is to reflect back what you heard them say. Rather than assume that you understood, because you heard their words, actually check. Repeat their words to them, exactly as they said it. Ask them if it sounds right, and if you got it wrong, ask them to go over it again, and keep refining your understanding of their words – meaning the content of their words, which you may not believe to be 100% accurate – until they tell you you’ve got it.
One of the reasons why it’s important to make sure you internally consent to this kind of conversation beforehand is because it can be really challenging to do this, to be able to reflect back exactly what you’re hearing the other person say, without giving in to the urge to correct them or defend yourself in the process.
Step 3: Find the missing pieces
Once the other person knows that you’ve heard them, and that you are understanding their words, the next step is to ask if there’s anything else about their experience they want to share, that they missed before, or if there’s anything they want to clarify.
The purpose of this step is to give them the opportunity to amend their words or provide more context to make their meaning clearer. If there is something else, then the process goes back to step 2, and you iterate through steps 2 and 3 until the other person says: I think I’ve said everything I wanted to say, and I feel heard now.
Step 4: Showing gratitude
Finally, the fourth step is to say thank you. Thank the other person for sharing all of their feelings with you. Even if the other person is sharing something painful, the fact that they shared at all is a gesture of connection towards you.
This is also the place where you can begin to step back and metabolize what they’ve said, to understand where they might be right, where they might be showing you something you didn’t realize before, or where their unique perspective may have opened up a whole new realm of understanding for you. Maybe what you thought you did isn’t what actually happened, and what you thought you said isn’t actually how it was perceived.
This is exactly why listening without trying to defend yourself is so necessary, because your defense might ultimately not matter if your intention isn’t what was actually perceived. You may have had an impact on that person beyond what you expected or assumed
It’s important to allow time before trying to shift the conversation to you now being heard. Let their share settle, and allow space for your own understanding to settle as well.
And there are a number of ways to metabolize this: you can journal about it, meditate, go for a walk, or just sit with the information and allow it to sink in. The important thing is that you take in what they’ve said and truly think about it before automatically rejecting it or defending yourself against it.
Being understood yourself is part of a separate conversation
There is always an opportunity later to come back and say, hey, I would love for you to listen to me about my experience around this. But that’s a separate conversation, and just as you were under no obligation to listen to understand them before, they won’t be obligated to listen to understand you later.
Of course, taking advantage of this lack of obligation does put a limit on the intimacy of our relationships.
If we’re unwilling to listen to understand, then our intimacy can only go so deep. But for those relationships that aren’t ultimately that important in our lives – the people we don’t know but who comment on our social media posts, for example – sometimes we gain more by respectfully refusing to engage with people who want to argue with us. It may not be the best use of our energy or resources to try to deeply understand the opinions of every person who disagrees with us in some way.
So there you have it: four simple steps to listening to understand. Only after all four of these steps have been completed should you start to speak from the heart and speak your truth, or share your experience. At that point, the other person should embark on step one of the process: listening without defending.
But remember, we are never obligated to go through this process. Listening to understand takes a lot of work, and it is okay to not be in the right mental or emotional space for it at certain times.
It’s important that we make a choice to step into those conversations. When we do, remember that we still have the choice to walk away at any point. When you make the choice to step in, to listen, to understand, then you know you’ve set yourself up for success because you know what you’re there for and what you’re trying to achieve.
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