Developing Your Listening Skills Can Be a Game-Changer

Read about how to seek to understand before being understood to become a better listener.

While in a conversation with a friend, do you ever catch yourself preparing your reply halfway through their sentence?

Recall a time when you were talking to someone and halfway through your sentence, you could see that they were already eager to reply. You could see their gears turning as they thought of what they were preparing to respond with. Or worse, they interrupted you without even hearing everything you had to say. It turned out that they were not really listening — they were just interested in giving you their advice.

Dr. Stephen Covey, the author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, said it best: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” I think we’re all guilty of this, and it’s time we developed better listening habits. To have meaningful relationships with others, we need to become better communicators — and that means starting with our listening skills.

Dr. Covey’s fifth habit is to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Being a better communicator begins not with the way we speak or write, but with the way we listen and seek understanding. We’ve learned throughout our lives how to speak and write well — it’s a major point of focus for our education system. Though we’ve learned how to speak the right way with the right words, we rarely get lessons on learning how to listen.

Seeking first to understand is like diagnosing a problem before recommending a fix. If you’ve ever had to fix something complex, you know that finding the root cause of the issue can take up most of your time before you can actually deal with it. The same is true in our conversations with others. After all, each individual we meet is incredibly complex, so how do we even begin to help them if we don’t fully understand them? We cannot put people in categories and expect to fix a person’s issues without fully understanding their situation, even if we’ve had experiences related to their issue.

Learning to listen takes focus and intentionality. We are challenged to listen with our ears to hear not only what someone is saying, but how they are saying it. We should also see with our eyes and observe how others are communicating with their body language. This is a skill that can be developed over time to the point where you can sense the person’s intentions as they’re talking. Dr. Covey refers to this as empathic listening, meaning listening with empathy and a true desire to understand the other person on an intellectual and emotional level.

When you listen to someone with empathy, you are reinforcing their trust in you — that you understand them and what they’re going through. Whether you’re talking to a friend or a coworker, building trust and giving them some room to think out loud can be very helpful — even if you yourself don’t have all the answers. Being a good listener doesn’t mean you are expected to be the problem-solver. A good listener doesn’t even always need to respond. In some cases, a person will figure out the answer themselves.

If the other person is done speaking but you don’t fully understand their perspective, it’s important that you seek clarification before moving on. You can ask questions that reflect what was said to you and see if the other person is willing to expand on their concerns. This mid-point to the conversation is critical because to prescribe a solution, you must completely understand the problem.

We must be careful when asking questions to only ask questions that are strictly exploratory in nature. Don’t make the mistake of asking questions that come off as judgmental. It may make the situation worse. Ask open-ended questions like, “Can you tell me more?” or, “I don’t fully understand, can you expand on that?” Asking these types of questions will help the other person open up more. Judgmental questions will do the opposite.   

Here are some common ways people exhibit poor listening skills — we should learn to avoid these approaches as they are not helpful and don’t build trust:

Evaluating: You judge a person and agree or disagree based on your own experiences.

Probing: You ask questions from your own frame of reference without objectivity in mind.

Advising: You give counsel, advice, or solutions to problem without them asking for it yet.

Interpreting: You analyze others’ motives and behaviors based on your own experiences.

These are called “autobiographical” responses because they filter what others say through our own experiences, which often results in biases. Sometimes our own frame of reference can help, if they are asking directly for our experience on the issue. More often, though, you’ll find that a person’s issues are unique to their own situation. It just doesn’t make sense to filter their story through your own to give a response. It’s best to stick with basic clarifying questions.

A solution to a person’s issue can be simple, complex, or anything in between, but if you have done the first part right, you have built a good foundation to help. Now that you fully understand the situation, you can focus on the second part of this habit, which is to make yourself understood. It bears repeating, however, that whatever input we offer comes only after fully understanding the other person’s needs.

In many cases, the person who asks for your opinion wants your perspective on the matter. Give it to them honestly, but never by attacking their character. A person’s problem may be their fault, but they’ve made themselves vulnerable by coming to you to ask for help, and that should be respected.

If at any point in your response you feel the other person is getting emotional, you should slow down or pause. It’s possible you don’t fully understand as well as you thought; the other person doesn’t feel understood; or it simply isn’t time for the other person to hear your answer. At that point, you need to go back and ask more questions to see if there is more to know. Ask them if they feel understood. See if they truly want your input, or if they just want you to be present with them. Don’t be afraid of some silence in situations like these. It’s possible the other person just needs to take time to compose themselves.

In some cases, you may not immediately have the answer to a person’s problem. In fact, you may need to take a break after you’ve fully understood their issue. Depending on the situation you find yourself in, you might be able to take time to discern your response. Taking what you know and praying about it may help you find the right words to say to your friend or colleague.

In the end, this habit leans heavily on taking the time to learn how to listen and truly understand others so you can help them. It’s about effectively building up trust within that relationship so they can receive your response without being defensive. It’s about letting them know they are heard and understood — and no matter how you resolve their problem, that compassion is the best thing you can offer, anyway.

This post is part 5 in a series on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Read about the other habits here:

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