LISTEN to Understand

LISTEN to Understand: 6 Actions of High-Performance Listening

There are three ways to listen: we can listen to win, we can listen to fix, or we can listen to understand and learn. How do you listen?

  • Do you listen just to make sure you can win your argument?
  • Do you listen to figure out ways to jump right to the solution?
  • Or, do you listen to understand and go on a journey of empathy to learn another point of view, which then will build trust?

Listening to understand involves checking your ego and learning another point of view. When you do this you develop empathy which enables you to connect. LISTEN is the acronym for a 6-part guide on how to listen to understand.

Lean In

Your body posture communicates volumes before you open your mouth. Show your interest in listening to understand by facing the person, using eye contact, and removing distractions. Studies have shown that most of our communication comes through body language. The other 6 percent is not only what you say, but how you say it—your tone. Learn to use all these elements of body posture, facial expression, and eye contact in synergy and with intent, and you’ll find that your ability to connect and to build trust increases.

Indicate your intention

Let the speaker know your intentions by saying: “Help me understand,” “What do you think?” “What am I/we missing?” Starting from a point of curiosity (and thus vulnerability), rather than certainty, sets the tone for how you collaborate with others. The three core actions at the heart of every successful collaboration—asking, listening, and understanding—will enable you to draw strength and resources from everyone.

Suspend your judgment

While you listen, take everything the speaker is telling you is true and put your bias, judgment, and beliefs on the back burner while you let a solution develop. When you open your mouth, choose your words wisely and give people some validation for their perspective. As a team leader, you are the first and best person to give them a reason to believe that what they’re doing matters.

Tune into tone

Tone is an emotional indicator of how the speaker is feeling. Listen for pitch, volume, and pace; and then match it with their body language to gain a deeper understanding of the speaker. People may be saying the opposite, but their body language doesn’t lie; indeed, it communicates a message more powerful than words.


A way to help you empathize is verbally acknowledging an emotion. The more you can feel what the speaker feels, the greater the connection with the speaker, which will help you learn the best solution. When it comes to building trust, leaders must be able to connect with people—all kinds of people—and empathy is one of the most powerful ways to do it, whether it’s one-to-one or one-to-many. The key to empathy is the ability to listen and stay present in the moment.

Notice non-verbal feedback

Look for non-verbal cues. The key is to get the speaker comfortable to communicate what’s truly on their mind and heart. Leaders listen with the intent first to understand and then respond—not the other way around. They never miss an opportunity to learn something new; they are continually asking themselves when they meet someone “What can I learn from this person?” This question makes them engaging and active listeners—it leaves people feeling like they are the only person in the room.

Above all, just LISTEN. It may seem passive, but listening with all of your attention is anything but passive. When you are fully engaged and actively listening, you are completely immersed in what the other person is saying. Ask questions, withhold judgment, seek clarification, and acknowledge what you are hearing.

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