How to decrease misunderstandings and increase cooperation by listening to understand

By Erica Martin. Erica is a telephone insurance interviewer and a freelance writer from North Carolina, USA. Please read her entry and leave your thoughts and comments below.

“Most People Don’t Listen With the Intent to Understand – They Listen With The Intent To Respond” – Stephen Covey

I agree with Stephen Covey’s quote wholeheartedly. I’ve seen a lot of examples of this in my job as an interviewer for a third-party insurance underwriting company and in my personal life. I’m also guilty of doing this myself. As I’ve gotten older though, it’s started to annoy me increasingly. I’ve started trying to listen more mindfully to what people are saying, so I can understand what they’re saying.

What’s the problem with listening to respond?

When we listen to respond, we’re not listening mindfully to what someone is saying. We’re trying to form an answer in our head as the person is talking. That means we may be missing vital points that they’re making. These may change our response.

How to start listening to understand

Start by listening when people are talking, and not interrupting with your own thoughts until they’ve finished talking. If you want to get to know them better, ask them questions about themselves – find out what they do, and show an interest in what they’re saying. Some questions you might ask include:

* What do you do?

* What does your company do?

* What did you do before you joined your present company?

* How do you like this change?

* How is the company going?

* What are some of the biggest issues you faced?

* Tell me about your family?

* Tell me about hobbies you enjoy.

When you ask open-ended questions, instead of questions that require yes-no responses or one-word answers, you learn valuable tidbits about them. By the time you have all the information you need, they’ll ask you what you do or who you work for.

Keep an open mind.

Don’t judge what the person is saying, just listen to it. If you have a problem focusing on the person’s message, repeat what the person is saying in your mind.

Get rid of outside distractions.

There are way too many outside distractions these days that take our attention away from personal conversations. People also sometimes think it’s important to take notes when someone else is speaking. But when you’re listening to someone talk, it’s important to just listen to them. Don’t do other things, like take notes. The previous phrase may seem contradictory, but if you’re really interested in details, you can ask the person to follow up on their points in writing if needed. If you’re at a lecture or talk that allows recording devices, you can also record it and listen to it later so you can get the details.

Listen for the big picture, not for details.

It’s important to get the overall point of a person’s message and not focus on the details. It’s easy to misinterpret the facts or put them in the wrong context.

Don’t interrupt or jump to conclusions.

This is something I do, and something others have done when I’ve talked. It’s important to wait until the person has finished speaking before you ask questions or ask for clarification. You can ask the person to repeat themselves, but do it between sentences. If the person who’s speaking varies the tone of their voice, it will be easy to tell when they’re ending a sentence.

Put the big picture takeaway in your own words, then add details.

After a person has finished speaking, you can paraphrase the big picture takeaway and then add details. If the speaker hears your version of what you took away from their talk, they may be able to clarify any points you missed or didn’t understand completely.

Challenge yourself.

You might not agree with the what the speaker is saying. Before they start talking, ask yourself when or why the speaker’s message might be true? Those questions will help you put yourself in their shoes. This way, it becomes more difficult to argue with them. It is possible to understand a person without agreeing with them. The best way to handle this is to ask non-confrontational questions.

Those are my thoughts on why Stephen Covey’s quote is true, and how more people can start to listen to understand. If more people would start doing these things, there would be fewer misunderstandings, and more cooperation among people, even if they don’t always agree with others’ opinions.

6 comments on “How to decrease misunderstandings and increase cooperation by listening to understand

  1. Kevin Martin on

    Great stuff here! I agree too many of us, me included, listen to answer. A lot of information gets lost this way I believe and creates the misunderstandings. Not good for big business.
    Slow down and learn to understand!

    Reply
  2. Nicola on

    Love this and agree with the points you raise Erica. It’s interesting to ‘people watch’ and see this going on. I often see people getting excited to explain how they’ve done something similar or gone to the same place or maybe to share a bad experience before the speaker has even finished their story.

    I guess it’s exuberance and sharing common ground, but sometimes it looks like ‘oneupmanship’!

    I think it’s also worth considering that some people aren’t necessarily expecting a response, they may just want to be heard, and no more.

    Reply
  3. Michal on

    So true and almost all are guilty of that.
    Good points, I especially liked “put the big picture takeaway in your own words.”

    Reply
  4. Vince Comfort on

    Wow, I guess I’ve never listened to understand then. I’m a big culprit when it comes to jumping in to conclusions. I find myself trying to get to where the speaker is going before they get there.

    Thanks for this. I’m bookmarking this for future reference. 🙂 Great post.

    Reply

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