Tips for Listening to Understand, Not to Respond

Recently, I asked if my roommates had time to talk. On the brink of tears, I was not necessarily seeking advice, but rather a listening ear. I had been experiencing frustration at work, and it was overwhelming nearly every other facet of my life, from friendships to my physical and mental health. 

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The conversation did not go as I hoped. My roommates interrupted periodically with, “Well have you tried this?” or “At least it’s not as bad as that.” Their comments made me feel like I wasn’t fully being heard and that my problems were not as stressful as I felt, since they seemed to be solving them easily. I left the room feeling misunderstood and frustrated with myself for even asking to talk in the first place. 

In hindsight, I could have explicitly stated that I needed someone to listen and that I was not seeking advice. I wanted my roommates to simply say, “We hear you. That is hard. We are here for you.” I needed a simple affirmation that I was allowed to feel stressed and that I had support. 

Listening to understand, rather than respond, is easier said than done. When someone is in pain, frustrated, or confused, it is likely our first instinct to try to fix the situation or offer advice. However, if we make it our goal to simply understand a person’s thoughts, we, in turn, allow that person the space to be heard. 

Here are a few ways I’ve learned to focus less on responding, and more on understanding when listening to a friend. 

Embrace silence

This is what I wished my roommates would have allowed for in our own conversation. Instead of interrupting with questions and solutions, they might have offered me the time and space to process aloud. When most of us notice silence in a conversation, we feel tense or compelled to fill in the gap. It can be seen as awkward or rude to remain silent after someone finishes speaking. 

However, allowing for silence prompts the person who is leading the conversation to continue his or her thoughts uninterrupted. Despite the initial discomfort, silence keeps the speaker in charge of his or her thoughts, and the person who is speaking can open up further and clarify his or her feelings. Silence can also signify our empathy because we respect the speaker enough to be confident in his or her own thought process. 

Be actively present

At the school where I teach, students often approach me while I’m writing an email, and I’ll continue typing while they relay their questions. Yet, I know that sinking feeling when I see a friend glance at his watch while I’m speaking. It is almost impossible not to feel unimportant or a bother.

I try to maintain eye contact with the person speaking to acknowledge the conversation’s importance. When I’m listening to my partner, I might reach for his hand. If a student has been speaking for a while, a simple nod of my head can keep him or her in charge of the conversation. With my long-distance friends, I might hum my approval on the phone or offer quick verbal affirmation, showing I am still listening. If I need to talk, it means the world when a friend is willing to walk around the block rather than carry on a conversation over text. 

Ask more questions

When I have a student who is struggling, my first instinct is to begin offering suggestions and action plans, like, “Maybe you could try this,” or “Just keep looking on the bright side.” On the other hand, I become frustrated when others do this to me because I often know what I need to do; I just need someone to be an honest listener with no agenda. 

Listeners might try asking more questions rather than affirming or suggesting. For instance, after allowing for silence, I might have asked my friend, “Can you help me understand what is affecting your mood?” or maybe more simply, “What was that like for you?” 

You can also use questions to prioritize the needs of the other person. At the end of the conversation, you might ask, “What do you need right now?” This allows the speaker to remain in control of the conversation. It also allows you to offer concrete suggestions after this conversation.

It’s not about you

If we are listening to understand and not respond, we need to remember to listen from a selfless viewpoint. I often want to provide the correct answer so that my students don’t have to struggle through a question. Or, sometimes I become impatient with their struggles, so I will jump in with advice instead of letting them work through it on their own.

When I find myself in these moments, I try to remember that being an active listener means that I need to put the speaker in the driver’s seat and become the passenger. However, this does not mean I disengage completely. I am present to ask questions, give my attention, and lend silence when necessary. It’s not always easy to navigate conversations as a listener, but practicing these steps has strengthened my professional and personal relationships.

Originally published May 12, 2020. 

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