The Importance of Listening to Understand

By Hannah Tishman, LMSW

There is a major difference between listening to understand and listening to respond. It is natural to listen to others speak and to instinctively find a way to relate with a personal anecdote or jogged memory. It is how our brains sort through thousands of thoughts, emotions, and memories, and in turn, gives us empathy and an ability to connect with that person. However, when we listen to respond we are not really listening. We often miss important messages our friends, co-workers, and loved ones are sharing with us when we listen to respond. Listening to understand makes each interaction meaningful.

I am sure we have all experienced a time where we share something personal and a friend has dismissed this sacred moment by instantly sharing about themselves. This can be invalidating to the person who is being vulnerable and make us feel like we are not being acknowledged.

There have been times I have found myself listening to a friend talk about a subject that I identify with on a personal level. During these conversations, I have become distracted with my own urge to share my connection to the subject. I then miss out on what that person is communicating to me. Over time, I have developed an internal practice in my mind that reminds me to stop and remember the importance of listening to understand what they are sharing with me, rather than focusing inwards. If there is something that I really want to share with that person, it can wait until later. This is an essential aspect of communication that we should all try to adapt throughout our daily conversations.

Here are some steps to begin “listening to understand”:

  1. Focus - Notice their body language, tone of voice, and affect.

  2. Show you are listening - Nod accordingly, display open and warm body language by uncrossing your arms and making eye contact.

  3. Don’t interrupt - Wait until the person completes their sentence before responding. 

  4. Reflect - Repeat what they are saying back to them, prior to responding.

  5. Respond - Respond gently and how you would want someone to reply to you. 


It is important to try to put ourselves aside during moments in which our loved ones are being vulnerable with us, so we can show up for them and let them know they are being heard.

Hannah Tishman is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you are looking for support in finding solutions to enhance your overall wellness, contact Cobb Psychotherapy by calling 718-260-6042 or emailing reception@cobbpsychotherapy.com, and see how therapy can help.

Elizabeth Cobb