Hearing versus Understanding

It’s rather funny when you think about it. We’re a very social species. We have a need to connect so we’re frequently conversing and hearing stories from those around us. This can even be more so if you are an extrovert and you are chatterbox. The ironic part is that while we are very good at hearing we tend to be terrible at understanding.

A few years ago, I remember a colleague telling me an amusing story of a student coach first learning this concept of hearing versus understanding. It was one of the coach’s first experiences with doing coaching, and she asked the client what she wanted to work on. The client said that he wanted to take better care of his health. The coach’s eyes lit up at this and proceeded to share all these ideas she had including complex exercise routines and effective diets she learned from when she ran marathons. After a couple of minutes the client got the courage to cut the coach off from talking, and respond, “I don’t want to do anything like that! I was just thinking I should drink more water.”

Naturally, situations like these are kind of entertaining, enough so, that we often see stuff like this in stand-up comedy or sitcoms. Despite this, it’s often very desirable to be understood and to understand others, so first let’s look at why these misunderstandings happen, and then what we can do about it.

The why

There are generally two big reasons we don’t do well with understanding. The first is that the English language (or any language for that matter) is bad at describing experiences. You’ve probably encountered this if you ever tried to describe a feeling you’ve had or even a song you like to somebody who hasn’t had the same experience. No matter how much you try, generally if somebody hasn’t shared your experience and doesn’t share your vocabulary, it’s very hard to be understood. This is why you often see people using analogies to explain things. It’s them trying to find a common experience they can use to get past this communication barrier.

The other reason is essentially ego. Most people, by nature, are more interested in talking about themselves, resolving their own problems, and having people learn about them than learning about others. The general result is that we’re often too busy thinking about what we’ll say next to fully think and process what is being told to us. This is basically what we see in the earlier example. The coach gets caught up in sharing her own experiences and expertise instead of listening and actively asking what the client means by being healthier.

What can we do?

So there are a number of really good approaches you can use to improve your listening skills with another person. Naturally you won’t want to use this skills all the time, but they are really useful when providing emotional support, clarifying a task that needs to be done, or even getting a person to just share more.

Active listening

You may have heard of this technique before. Unfortunately, it often gets a bad rep as being some stupid, pointless exercise they make you do in things couples counseling, but it actually is really useful. The idea is very simple, focus your attention solely on listening and none on talking. At no point should you be thinking about what you will say, or how you can tie this to your own experiences, instead you should just be focusing on what’s being told to you.

When you do this, you ensure that none of your brainpower is being diverted to thinking up responses and you can get more of the nuance of the person speaking to you. Doing this properly can allow you to not only hear what’s being said directly to you, but extra also body language, hidden implications, and subtleties you might normally miss. If somebody is also trying to explain something difficult and can’t find the right words, your extra attention will often allow you to connect more dots and understand what they are trying to convey.

Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions are any kind of question that requires more than a yes or a no to answer. A good general rule is stick to questions that start with the words “how”, “what”, “why”, and “when”, and avoid questions starting with “are”, “do”, or “have”.

Using example of the client with health goals, here are some good questions you could ask: “Why are you interested in improving your health?”, “How do you want to work on your health?”, “What sort of health goals would you like to create?”, or even “Give me an example of how you’d like your health to be different.” Notice that each question requires more than a yes or no.

The reason why open-ended questions are really useful is that it forces a person to elaborate and clarify. This often clarifies ambiguities that create misunderstandings, such as not knowing whether somebody is looking to be fit enough to run a marathon, or just drink more water.

You can also learn more by asking closed-ended questions like “do you want to run a marathon?”, but often this means you have to ask a lot more questions to learn about somebody, and you are more likely to come across like you are making assumptions about what the person means.


This is probably the most powerful tool I can give you, because it actively stomps misunderstandings into the ground. What you do is repeat what the speaker said to you in your own words back.

So in our example, the client said, “I was just thinking I wanted to try drinking more water”. You can acknowledge this by responding with “ So, I am hearing that you are interested in doing a small health goal”. What happens then is the person will then either confirm that you understand or correct you and clarify further what they mean.

In this case, he might might respond “Yes! I just want to start small, because I’m really bad with my health and I don’t want to get overwhelmed.”, or if there is a misunderstanding, “No, actually I want to make several goals, drinking more water is just what I want to do for my health. I also want to set some goals around my career and family.”

In my experience, you can sometimes find yourself acknowledging several times before you come to a common understanding, but the nice part about acknowledging is that if you spend enough time at it, you almost always wind up on the same page. Acknowledging also has the advantage of making the talker feel heard, often resulting in them more eager to share with you and able to work with you.

Other things to note

I should also mention that while I am using an example of a coach and client. These skills can easily be used in normal life. If your friend says they are having a bad day, you can ask them “what’s wrong?” or “what can I do to help?”, actively listen, and then acknowledge whatever issue they share. Likewise, if somebody asked you to help plan a party, you can ask things like “How many people are coming?” or “What sort of party are you hoping to have?”.

These techniques are also amazing for small talk. You can very quickly get to know people this way, and in my experience, you can get even the shyest of people to start having an active conversation with you.

I think effective listening is very important. It’s one of the most important skills you need to foster intimacy with others. It’s also really valuable for planning and coordinating with others. Work at it and you’ll be duly rewarded for your efforts.

Images provided by Milos Milosevic,  Hadley Paul Garland, and mina1015

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