Years ago when I was studying acting, my teachers would always say, “Don’t just listen for the last word of your scene partner’s line to cue you to say your line. Be present and truly listen to the words they’re saying.” I took their advice to heart in the context of acting: Listen to understand, not simply to respond. But I didn’t realize back then how important listening to understand is not just to acting, but to all areas of our lives.
Having also spent many years working in the medical field, I know firsthand that doctors are conditioned to listen for keywords or phrases that help them diagnose the patient’s problem so they can move quickly and efficiently from case to case. From early on in medical school, they are taught ways of listening that facilitate a quick reply rather than a true understanding of a patient’s holistic situation.
Working now as a life coach, I see the detrimental effects that reply-oriented listening practices can have on people’s personal lives. One of my clients is, in fact, an infectious disease doctor who came to me after being diagnosed with cancer and realizing that she wanted to make some big changes in her life. She noticed that her deeply ingrained tendency to be on the defense when communicating with others was not only doing a disservice to her patients, but that it was also wreaking havoc on her personal relationships. She wanted to curb the need to always have the last word in favor of learning to listen to her daughter, her partner, and her parents with the goal of actually understanding their views.
There is that little voice inside all of us that yearns to be right at any cost. We have all clung to dubious logic for dear life in the interest of winning an argument. We have all chomped at the bit for another person to finish talking so that we can fire back with our own knowledge, opinions, and views. So often, we get so caught up in communicating our own opinions that we forget to actually try and understand where the other person is coming from. We hear keywords that trigger an automatic response in us, and then we tune out until it is our turn to speak again. In all likelihood, the person we’re talking to is doing the same thing, and thus a vicious cycle of listening to reply ensues. We both leave the conversation feeling annoyed, defeated, and defensive, and misunderstood. This is a particularly prevalent phenomenon in our current political climate; listening to reply does not foster the mutual understanding necessary to arrive at productive resolutions and compromises.
So here’s my call to action: Let’s start listening to each other to understand. Even if you think you vehemently disagree with what a person is saying, do not merely give them the respect of letting them finish talking before you dissent. Instead, give them the much greater respect of thoughtfully consuming what they say in an attempt to understand where it’s coming from and what its implications actually are. Take a moment or two to process the information you’ve just heard, and if you don’t understand something, ask clarifying questions. Contrary to what we’re told by the little kid in us who are scared to get mocked for asking a stupid question, asking conscientious questions is actually the mark of an intelligent, confident communicator. With the right questions, a conversation between two people with opposing opinions can go from a frustrating stalemate to a productive debate.
When you stop listening to reply and start listening to understand, your relationships – personal, professional, and otherwise – will improve. We can become better actors, doctors, coaches, parents, and partners by implementing this concept every day. Hopefully, the people you respect by listening to understand will feel compelled to show you the same respect in return.
Previously published on LinkedIn
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