More than Listening to Understand, We Need to Listen to Connect

 Sometimes when people are speaking, this is what we hear.  Sometimes when people are speaking, this is what we hear.

A few years ago, I started to work with leaders to develop their ability to communicate better to drive engagement and results for their teams. When these leaders would show up in my classroom, often times, they bring with them their struggles and challenges to get their message across. “They just don’t listen”, exclaimed one exasperated leader after the other. It seems like they faced an impossible challenge every time – whether it was getting their direct reports to show up to work on time, or whether it was convincing their boss to adopt a new strategy. Several mentioned the difficulty of having to deliver tough feedback. “I don’t know what to say,” one manager said to me, “so I just don’t say anything at all.”

The misconception in communication is just this – that to be a good communicator, you need to be able to speak well. To most of us, it’s simple to imagine that getting our message across involves some sort of magical persuasion or influencing tactic. We have to be inspiring, to use the right words and grammatical structure, we have to elevate our tone, our posture, our gestures. In fact, there are so many “tricks and tips” all over the internet on how to say anything to anyone. From using “we” language to asking the right questions there are endless examples of how we can “say” the right thing to finally get our message across to the other person.

In exploring how to help these leaders develop their communication skills, I stumbled upon a new concept – listening to understand. It was a huge light bulb moment for me. I tend to think quickly on my feet and react immediately to conversations, that is, I have a tendency to listen to respond. In fact, I typically don’t even wait for the person to finish speaking before I formulate my thoughts on what to say next. What happens for me is this: as the other person talks, the wheels in my brain continue to spin, just waiting for the right moment, the moment where the other person takes pauses for one breath, and then I swoop in to say my piece, whether it was warranted or not.

Listening to understand is all about being generous with your attention. It is about truly focusing 100% of your attention on what the other person is saying. It’s taking the time to learn about the other person’s perspective. When you listen to respond, you can miss important details, facts, and cues. When you listen to understand, you zone in, rather than zone out on what is said, giving you the advantage of truly hearing what the other person is saying, so that what you hear, is what you understand.

Yet having a conversation, especially a difficult one isn’t a one sided process. In fact, conversations are two-sided, they are didactic and dynamic. While listening to understand is a critical skill to great communication, I would argue that listening to connect is even more important. Listening to connect builds trust, and trust breaks down conversational barriers. According to Judith E. Glaser, author of best-selling book, Conversational Intelligence, in order to build trust and get extraordinary results, leaders need to listen to connect, not judge or reject. This involves taking listening one step further. Instead of trying to understand what the person is saying, try to relate to it. See the way they see, feel the way they feel. Observe the little nuances of what is said vs. unsaid, what lies beneath the surface or between the lines. Be intentional about looking for opportunities to understand and relate to the other’s perspective. Focus on being non-judgmental, and open up the conversational space for creating greater connections, sharing perspectives and discovery.

When we choose to listen to connect, we become better communicators. In the end,  it’s not about word choices or persuasion. It’s about making a connection, caring for and bonding with another human being.


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Positively Sparkle

About Nikki Nikki specializes in strategic leadership, engagement, team development and enhancing performance and relationships at work. Her passions include helping teams and leaders discover the best versions of themselves in order to build engagement and promote business results. Guided by cutting edge research on adult learning principles and positive psychology, her approach is always to engage the learner through meaningful activities and inspirational breakthroughs. Nikki has a Master's of Arts in Positive Organizational Psychology from Claremont Graduate University and has extensive experience both in the Fortune 500 retail and health care sectors in New York City. In her spare time, Nikki is a baker, home decorator, event planner and event stylist. She loves to cook and entertain friends. She owns and operates Confections by Nikki, a boutique dessert and event styling business offering small-batch and personalized sweets, dessert table set-up and event consulting. To learn more, go to Nikki currently resides in Astoria, New York with her husband Chris and pug, JJ. She lives to inspire others and leaves a little sparkle wherever she goes.

3 thoughts on “More than Listening to Understand, We Need to Listen to Connect”

  1. This is one of my biggest challenges… Having the discipline to shut my laptop to give the speaker 100% of my + the perspective to understand their viewpoint + the patience to get their buy-in. Any practical tips to try?


    1. This is one of my biggest challenges… Having the discipline to shut my laptop to give the speaker 100% of my attention + the perspective to understand their viewpoint + the patience to get their buy-in. Any practical tips to try?


      1. Hi LJ!
        It starts with making the commitment to give the other person your attention. I try to not bring my phone or laptop into meetings or discussions where social connection and bonding is important. This helps to set the tone and opens up the space for bonding. Then, you want to really focus in on seeing their perspective, challenges, and identifying moments where you feel like you can relate to the other person. A big part of connecting with someone is actually caring for them as a person. Let me know how those conversations work out for you!!! 🙂


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