Do you listen to others with the intent to reply or to understand?

In the rush to solve problems and get things done, there’s a natural tendency for all of us to simply tell. And, we’re quite good at it. Think of the great communication classes you may have had over the years. While called “communication,” they were all about how to deliver or present a message. I challenge you to find one that was about how to effectively listen.

Making quick decisions and judgement calls will often lead to misdiagnosed solutions, faulty assumptions, narrow perspectives, and misunderstood facts. As a result, we deprive others of the opportunity to solve problems on their own.

Think about a time when you felt misunderstood by someone. How did it make you feel? Maybe you got defensive and vented your anger and frustration? Or maybe you felt intimidated or shut down, perhaps committing never to open up to that person again? Regardless of the response, each time we feel misunderstood (not truly heard) by someone important to us, we can feel disrespected and hurt. We may even experience an unintentional breach of trust−as if an essential part of the relationship bond was chipped away.

One of the most profound gifts you can give to another human being is your sincere understanding. To do so requires clearing away your mental clutter, suspending (at least temporarily) your agenda, and stopping long enough to focus and hear what someone is really saying. When it comes to creating effective relationships, with people fast is slow and slow is fast. An attentive, unbiased, listening ear gives people the rare opportunity to feel understood−a gift some psychologists argue we need as much as the air we breathe. Being truly present provides a safe environment in which people can learn to listen to themselves, to assess their own behavior, diagnose their own problems, and come up with their own solutions.

Reasons We Don’t Talk Less and Listen More

  • We’re trained to talk more: We may take classes to become better communicators, speakers, or more persuasive negotiators, but we rarely take classes on how to listen.
  • We’re fixers by nature: Most of us want to jump to a solution as soon as possible. And not with malicious intent; we just want to help. We tend to acknowledge the “fixers” as those worthy of praise.
  • The world is in a hurry: In today’s world, we live in a sound-bite society. Information is coming at us 24/7. All of our communication styles have developed into “how fast we can communicate.” And, it’s become almost commonplace to see how fast we can interrupt each other.
  • We want to be right: Stephen Covey said, “If you’re like most people, you want to seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation, or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. Most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand.”

Many of these reasons can be summed up as “autobiographical listening.” Simply put, everything you think and say comes from your point of view. You listen to yourself (your own story) while others are talking, preparing in your mind what you want to say or what you want to ask. You filter everything you hear through your own experiences. And then, you check what you hear against your own story to see how it compares. When you engage in autobiographical listening, you end up deciding prematurely what people mean before they finish talking – which can create huge communication divides.

Autobiographical listening can lead to giving people advice before they’ve asked for it, and to asking too many questions, not to get more understanding on an issue, but to satisfy personal curiosity.

Unfortunately, when we filter what others say through our own stories and experiences, we draw conclusions based on what we might do or feel in the same situation. Or worse, because we might be uncomfortable with the situation, we prescribe a solution that makes us feel better. We’re often afraid that if we listen too closely, we may be influenced and not get our way. While it’s natural to do so, jumping to conclusions or replying too soon with advice can make people feel like we are judging or evaluating them — certainly not listening to them. It can also make people “dig in their heels” even more, investing in their own point of view, and being less open to looking at other alternatives.

How to Talk Less and Listen More

It’s important to note that while there are several skills to listening well, none of them are as important as having the right attitude while listening. If you’re good at the skill but aren’t sincerely interested in understanding the other person, you’ll fail. In contrast, if you don’t get the skill right, but your intentions are sincere, people will feel your genuine concern and often give you the benefit of the doubt.

Talking less and listening more is not the same as agreeing with people. You may ultimately disagree with what a person is saying or feeling, but while you’re listening, you’re not imposing your views on the person. You’re not trying to figure out how to get them to see it your way. Instead, you’re suspending your opinions long enough to really step into their world and try to understand it from their point of view. This approach sounds simple, but it’s one of the most difficult mindsets to master−especially if you’re diametrically opposed to that person’s point of view, or if you’re emotionally involved. It takes an incredibly mature person to master this skill.

There are appropriate times to talk more and listen less. Often, it’s necessary to give advice and provide clear answers and direction to get the job done. But there are times when it’s also vital to do the opposite. When a person is highly-emotional, or when the Emotional Bank Account balance is low, or you’re not sure you fully understand, you’ll almost always benefit from talking less. By carefully listening and understanding first, before you advise or give solutions, you are in a much better position to grasp the real issues. Once you accurately address the situation, as well as the person’s feelings, they’ll feel more respected and trust will grow.

Once you have the attitude of really listening, it’s time to apply the skill. It’s counter-intuitive, yet ridiculously simply. Essentially, it’s the ability to reflect back to someone what they are saying and what they are feeling. But, when it’s done earnestly and authentically, it creates magic: it brings the speaker to a greater awareness of what he or she is feeling; it brings the listener into a rare state of empathy, and it creates a trust and rapport in the relationship that can’t be matched.

When we are mature and confident enough to set aside our own agenda long enough to get into the hearts and minds of those important to us, we not only get to solutions quicker, but we offer them our best selves.