The intent of listening is to understand, in its purest form

By Kenix Lau. Kenix lives in the United Kingdom. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

I believe most people’s habit is to listen to respond rather than to listen to understand. I think there are subtle differences between both, but the outcomes can vary greatly if we are to foster healthy relationships with family, friends and co-workers. Moreover, from the perspective of personal development, listening to understand is more effective in most cases.

The first fundamental observation is the distinction between active and passive listening. When we actively listen to each other with the intention to understand only, it shows a mutual respect for different points of view. A genuine appreciation of other people’s thoughts is not simply a matter of courtesy. Instead, it indicates the value we place on each other.

Passive listening is listening partially whilst trying to build your response internally before the other person has even finished speaking. For the most part, I think this type of listening is potentially damaging to relationships because it shows little regard for the thoughts of the other. It is very dismissive and does little to nurture good human relations.

Active listening often presents an opportunity for the person to repeat back what they think they heard for mutual understanding. Even if they still do not agree, they are more likely to close the conversation in a productive manner where they agree to disagree and move on.

When each party is attached to his or her opinion rather than the content of what they are saying, it may indicate that the person listening was not truly listening, while the person speaking did not feel heard. As a result, both are showing resistance to each other, most probably for very different reasons. It is worth remembering that an acknowledgement does not mean an agreement with what one has said.

If you think you are right all the time, you will never learn anything new. If you are not learning, you are dying. In a world characterised by change, one must be humble enough to realise that every day is a school day. I was taught the following wisdom that gave me a great deal of perspective: have strong beliefs but hold them loosely. In other words, if you can prove me wrong, I am happy to change my beliefs.

Being open to other points of view is also vital for personal growth. As the saying goes: we do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we see it. In other words, we see the world through our own lens that is based on our upbringings, external environment and influences that may help us or hinder us from making progress.

Our thoughts are often based on assumptions, beliefs and values – some helpful, some maybe not so. I think it is helpful to see listening as an art form that communicates ideas from one person to another, rather than anything personal or getting caught up in who’s right or wrong. We could process listening through our typical response, whatever that might be active or passive listening. Or we could master it in a way that harmonises human relationships and perhaps we may be positively impacted by doing so.

Listening to understand is more desirable and effective than listening to respond. I think the following quotations echo beautifully what I wrote. ‘One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” – Bryant H. McGill. ‘Listening consciously allows us to live fully, connected in space and in time to the physical world around us.’ – Julian Treasure.

Our point of reference is usually insufficient and inadequate to build an accurate picture of life in all its complexities. Listening to others can help us individually to bridge that gap or at least be open-minded enough to actively listen to other points of view from a neutral standpoint. ‘Listening is the key to understanding, and understanding is the key to knowledge and unity’- Julian Treasure.

However, there are exceptions to this rule, where listening to respond may be more appropriate due to time sensitivities or life and death situations where a quick response is deemed more effective for the end goal to be successful. In the case of emergency services; the quick assessment and dispatch of the correct resources would take precedence over the full understanding of the situation at hand.

I believe that we all have an innate longing to be understood. It is a good life policy to treat others the way we would like to be treated: listening to understand instead of listening to respond. Being aware of our own cultural filters will help us to listen attentively (free from distractions), fully and deeply and to harnesses relationships that thrive and flourish in their own time.

In a world full of noise and general busyness of modern life, we seem to have lost the ability to truly listen without distractions or being clouded by our own subjectivity derived from our life experiences or lack thereof. It is worth remembering that being open to other peoples’ points of view allows us to see things from above rather than the tiny angle from which we usually see things.

4 comments on “The intent of listening is to understand, in its purest form

  1. Hannah on

    Although I like your writing style along with the quotes from Julian Treasure you included, your definitions are completely incorrect.
    Passive listening is listening without responding, and active listening is listening with no distraction, full concentration, and then to respond to what was said.
    An example of passive listening is listening to news or a podcast.

    • Kenix Lau on

      Hi, thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on my write up – something I truly appreciate!

      It might be helpful for me to clarify that although I agree in principle what you said re active and passive listening. I was saying that passive and active listening can coexist in the same space, hence I agree with the idea that most people listen to reply rather than listen to understand.


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