Listening. Like breathing, it’s one of those things that we tend to take for granted—in other words, to assume that we do it well. I recently wrote the script for a film project where the director was deaf. His inability to hear forced me out of my unconscious approach to listening and made me think about it a little.

That led me to notice a social media meme: “We don’t listen to hear, we listen to respond.” This is a contraction of a quote from Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

As if on cue, I had a phone conversation not long afterwards where I expressed my viewpoint and I noted the other party immediately felt they had to state their equivalent view. It wasn’t a contentious conversation. It felt like the other person was vaguely uneasy about my opinion, as if they had to reiterate their own view to reassure themselves they had the right perspective.

(Can’t get no) Satisfaction

I realised that this person listened to respond. I also realised that I felt flat, unsatisfied and unheard. I also knew that in the future I would make less effort to communicate with them around our areas of difference. All in all, it was a dissatisfying experience.

I have also had the experience of truly being listened to. Not only did I feel heard, but also I felt that in the process I had released a burden. I felt lighter.

By contrast, I have also had the experience of truly being listened to. The outcome was diametrically opposite. Not only did I feel heard, but also I felt that in the process I had released a burden. I felt lighter. As the old saying goes, “A problem shared is a problem halved.”

So do you listen to respond or listen to hear? When others are speaking, do you feel a rush to jump in? Are you looking for gaps in the conversation where you can, reasonable politely, take over? Is a narrative writing itself in your head and wanting to burst from your mouth? Is there something vaguely churning in the pit of your stomach? That’s all listening to respond.

Discipline

Listening to hear requires discipline—the discipline of silence, which our society is on the whole very poor at. Listening to hear means creating a safe space where the talker feels comfortable sharing as much as they are willing to. Here are five tips on listening to hear:

  1. Listen from the other’s perspective. Not yours! What they’re saying is meaningful to them. Its meaning can only be understood from their perspective.
  2. Take the time to listen, even if you have to sacrifice your time to reply.
  3. You don’t have to agree. Our different views are what make us individuals.
  4. You don’t have to reply. Sometimes just to listen is enough.
  5. Ask if your response is welcome. Instead of simply giving your views, ask whether they would be welcome. Be prepared to accept that they may not.

Practice these and see what happens. Others may not notice. But you can notice how they feel at the end of a conversation. Prove to yourself that listening to hear is worth the effort.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out. In another recent conversation, someone I had thought of doing business with went into a long, defensive monologue about their pricing strategy. They were using the call as a means of dumping negative feelings. I didn’t feel that was appropriate in the context of the call. I listened until I’d heard enough and cut the conversation short. Oh well.

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