Become a Listening Master, Step 2: Listen to Understand

In the TV show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Kimmy advises her friend Titus to feign listening to something boring by imagining that the speaker’s mouth and eyes are flipped. Kimmy claims that this makes her appear interested (or morbidly fascinated), but this distracting fantasy certainly does NOT help her to listen! That’s because it’s all too easy to “listen” without comprehending. This is what you will learn to fix in Step 2 of your Listening Master Training (begin with Step 1 here). 

Even if you don’t use the eyes-mouth-swap trick to tune people out, it’s natural to lose focus. Even veteran buddhist monks who train their attention through many hours of daily meditation report that their minds wander frequently! Attentional drift is a consequence of our complex brains. We can’t change the fact, but we can learn to strengthen our focus.

This brings us to Step 2 in our Becoming a Listening Master blog series: When your mind wanders as you listen, bring your focus back to your intention to listen to understand (see Step 1). To really understand someone’s message, you need to practice other-focused listening. Here’s how:

  1. Choose an environment with minimal distractions and block out those that occur. Distance yourself from loud noises, face away from visual stimuli, keep your phone out of sight and on silent.
  2. Make listening priority #1. Decide that in this moment, nothing matters more than trying to understand the speaker.
  3. Notice the speaker’s non-verbal signals, including the speaker’s tone of voice, rate of speech, and body language. If you don’t understand a signal, neutrally name the behavior you’re noticing and ask the speaker “What’s going on for you right now?”
  4. Listen for the meaning behind the words. What is really important to the speaker? Read their non-verbal signals to help you figure this out. Ask the speaker, “What about that really matters to you?” or “Why is that important to you?”
  5. Manage your mind. Bring your focus back to the speaker when your mind wanders by searching for their intended meaning embedded in non-verbal signals and words.
  6. Bring curiosity and openness to your listening. Be ready to learn something new!

You can listen to understand by setting yourself up for success–minimizing distractions in the environment and swerving away from mind-wandering–and by constantly reminding yourself that your intention is to listen to understand. You are now equipped to successfully take the second step on your journey to becoming a Listening Master.