REPOST: Listening With the Intent to Understand

by Ron Potter
A Note From the Editor:
As we recently mentioned, we are reposting popular blog posts while Ron is recovering from some health issues.

The next time you’re listening to something, especially on a topic where you don’t necessarily agree, try this experiment: Use part of your brain to pay attention to what you’re thinking when listening to the other person. It’s okay. Your brain has a lot more capacity than your think. You can actually listen to another person at the same time as you act as an observer to watch what your own brain is doing. I know you can.

If you’re like most of us, you’ll find your own brain developing some sort of checklist:

  • Those two points support my side of the argument so I’ll immediately respond with those.
  • That point is not supported by fact, so I can instantly discount that.
  • That reminds me I need to pick up dog food on the way home.
  • I can’t believe they actually think that point is valid. How could they be so naive?

Then the moment happens. The other person pauses; they may not even be finished with their point of view, but just pausing a moment to collect their thoughts or even pausing a moment before presenting their obviously convincing closing statement. It makes no difference; it’s a pause.
So you jump in:

“Let me reinforce a couple of statements you made earlier because I believe they make my point exactly. And let me also clarify another conclusion you reached that is counter to all the facts we have.”

And on and on and on until you’re forced to pause and the cycle repeats.

If this scenario reflects in any way what you are experiencing while “listening” to other people, then you listen with the intent to respond. Most of us do it. Most of us do it most of the time. It takes a conscious effort and some practice to actually start listening with the intent to understand. But what a difference it will make in your life if you even get marginally good at it.

When you listen with the intent to understand, your curiosity kicks in. You’re not trying to catalog the points you’re hearing. You’re wondering:

  • I wonder why they believe that?
  • I wonder what experience they’ve had with this in the past?
  • I wonder who they trust on this and why?
  • I wonder what they believe will be the best outcome?

If you’re truly curious and wondering, then your response when that inevitable pause comes will be totally different.
Your first reaction to the pause may be to simply wait to see if there is a conclusion or further thoughts.
You may actually ask if there is a conclusion on further thought.
You may express your wonderment and curiosity and begin to ask questions or clarification or deeper understanding or more background.

Whatever you’re response. If it’s driven by curiosity and wonderment, the other person will immediately know that you’ve been listening to understand. You want to understand, you want to know their viewpoint. This sparks a very different reaction on their part.
A few key things happen from their point-of-view:

  • Once they realize you’re trying to understand their point-of-view, they become less rigid in their stance and more willing to admit it’s just their point-of-view.
  • They become more open to questioning their own point-of-view because you’re honestly questioning it in an attempt to understand and not with the intent to control or discredit it.
  • And most importantly, once you’ve fully listened to and attempted to understand their point-of-view, they’re much more willing to listen to and be open to your point-of-view.

Steven Covey, in his The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, indicates that one of the seven habits is to “seek to understand before being understood.” This is what he was talking about.

Listen with the intent to understand. Practice it. Use it often. You’ll be amazed at how much people are willing to share with you and how much they’re willing to listen to and understand your point-of-view.
Try it. It will be refreshing.

And one more solid point: In my book, Trust Me: Developing A Leadership Style People are Willing to Follow, the number one trait of great leaders is humility. The foundation of humility is the willingness to listen with the intent to understand.

What’s your reaction when someone actually listens to you and truly wants to understand?

This post was originally posted here on January 15, 2015.

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