Listening to Understand

We live in the information age. Social media gives everyone a platform, and it’s easy to find a voice and say things. But in all the speaking, it seems that our culture is struggling to listen.

Listening seems simple. In fact, most people think they are good listeners, yet so many of us feel unheard. The truth is that listening is more of a learned skill than we tend to acknowledge. One of the keys to empathetic listening is that we listen to understand, rather than to reply.

If both people in a conversation are only concerned about what they want to say, then neither are making understanding the other person a priority. As a result, both are left feeling unheard and unseen. Deep connection can only happen when we focus on listening. When we are listened to, validated, and heard, we feel a connection.

Can you think of a past conversation you had with someone when you walked away still feeling very alone and unheard?

What about a time when you really felt heard? How did that feel?

It’s important to remember self-determination in communication. Self-determination is the right to make one’s own decisions and have freedom from coercion. In the context of communication,  this means we are aware of the words we use, we choose not to give advice, and instead we shine a light on the person’s inner strength.

In his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey calls this type of listening “empathic listening.” Covey speaks about empathic (or empathetic) listening this way:

When I say empathic listening, I am not referring to the techniques of “active” listening or “reflective” listening, which basically involve mimicking what another person says. That kind of listening is skill-based, truncated from character and relationships, and often insults those “listened” to in such a way. It is also essentially autobiographical. If you practice those techniques, you may not project your autobiography in the actual interaction, but your motive in listening is autobiographical. You listen with reflective skills, but you listen with intent to reply, to control, to manipulate.

When I say empathic listening, I mean listening with intent to understand. I mean seeking first to understand, to really understand. It’s an entirely different paradigm.
Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel…

In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel. (1989)

When we are listening to understand, and we are honouring self-determination, we let go of the pressure to fix or save someone. Please breathe a sigh of relief and let go of any need to have all the answers or to be an “expert.” This leaves a whole lot more space to listen without replying.

Princeton University conducted a study on listening in 2010. The study was called “Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication,”  and it concluded that there is a lag time between what we hear and what we understand.

What this means is that processing information requires more time than the time involved in simple listening. We must take time to process what we hear. When we don’t take that time, and instead we jump into replying to someone, comprehension breaks down. This breakdown can lead to misunderstanding, misconnection, and conflict. So listening to understand requires patience and focus, and letting go of the pressure to reply.

“Empathetic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives, and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand. You’re focusing on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.” ~Stephen Covey

Tips for Empathetic Listening

Below are some practical suggestions for how to practice empathetic listening:

  • Intentionally let go of your desire to get your own message across. Instead concentrate on and listen to what the other person is saying.
  • Anytime someone is speaking there is usually a deeper narrative. There is often so much that is not being said. Pay attention to what is happening underneath the words they are saying. Notice their presence and their tone.
  • Ask powerful, open-ended questions when you don’t understand, and even – especially? – when you think you understand.
  • Be curious while being respectful and humble.
  • Pay attention when someone puts up a boundary, and respect that boundary.
  • Notice any judgments or biases that are bubbling up within you as you listen. Be mindful to suspend them.
  • Be OK with silence. Remember to take a minute to process what the person is saying before you speak.
  • When you’re about to start responding, check in with yourself using the helpful acronym: W.A.I.T (Why Am I Talking?)
  • Listen with all the empathy you can muster at the time. The more empathetic we are, the more generosity we have available to give, and the less likely we are to judge and assume.

ACTION: Fill out the deep listening self-assessment form at the end of this module.


  • Which of these tips do you think is the easiest for you to practice?
  • Which is the hardest for you to practice?
  • Were you surprised by your deep listening self-assessment results? Why or why not?
  • What do you want to work on?


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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