Henjo Hoeksma
Henjo Hoeksma

Are you listening to hear or to reply?

This week I came across a facebook post with an image attached to it reading "Are you listening to understand or are you listening to reply?" It stuck with me for the remainder of the week popping up on a couple conversations.

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

When in communication with others, are we truly listening to them? Are we listening to their words or to their message? Are we listening to reply?

No right or wrong answer

Over the years I have come to be able to let go more and more of labeling something right or wrong. I am definitely a work in progress when it comes to this, but it is easier for me to not `judge` situations, people or words people say as either right or wrong. 

That said, I do believe there is no right or wrong answer to the question in the title of this post. 

It can be fine to listen to reply. Often it is even required to do so. However there is the part where we sometimes reply without really listening. We hear the words being spoken and hook into them to give us context to `reply` so we can tell our story. And again, I don't think this is necessarily wrong ☺️.

The dynamics of listening

When listening to others there are multiple dynamics at play. One of those dynamics is you. Another is your partner in the communication: the other. Both of you have your own framework of thoughts and personality: your own contexts. And there is the fact that words can mean a lot of different things based on its context in a story or sentence. And what about body language and intonation? They all are playing huge roles when it comes to listening to someone.

It is evident to be aware of those dynamics to be a `good` listener where I would describe that someone who  is a `hearer of what is being communicated`. 

Understanding the dynamics in your conversation, helps you to better understand the message the other party is trying to convey.

Uneasy conversations are great!

In my experience uneasy conversations are conversations where we have the most difficulty really hearing the counterpart. They are also the conversations that are the most helpful in sharpening our communication skills and therefor it's more  helpful to embrace the uneasy conversations than to try avoid them.

Uneasy conversations are mostly uneasy for ourselves: our emotions are running high, insecurity pops up, anger sits in our way, we feel powerless to convey our message and feel unheard. Being confronted with these emotions sure isn't fun. On the other hand it is like a microwave to boost your personal development, if you handle them well.

What can you do to have a great uneasy conversation? 

If you haven't guessed already: listen to hear!

Force yourself to pause before replying or answering. Reflect first: what is going on inside of me? What emotions are playing a role here? 

Once you have your emotions in check, pause again and ask: what is the other actually saying? What is the real message they are trying to convey? It can actually help to ask those questions in order to get a better grip on the context of the other person. Someone might ask you why you are not finished and sound agitated. This doesn't have to mean they are angry with you for not finishing. It could also mean they are in a bad spot trying to shift responsibility. Or it brings them in a tough spot to get their own work done in time as a result.

You can figure out (i.e. actively listen) the message often best by standing next to your conversation partner: if you feel attacked, step out of the fight, put yourself in their shoes and listen for what really is going on. When having to face an uneasy conversation sometimes is a great tool to literally position yourself next to the other person instead of facing them head on. Taking a walk together for example. 

It's not by accident that coaching sessions or talks with a therapist are often done in a setting where you are not literally physically opposed to one another...

"You are a bad listener!"

I think everyone has had those words said to you more than once, especially inside the context of a relationship. And you can probably triple that when you are male. Men are worse listeners than women seems to be a common norm of sorts... 

But what does this mean? What is a bad listener? Whenever this phrase is used on the context of a conversation, what is it saying? It doesn't have to mean you have some sort of hearing disability - it most often means something different. The sender of this message basically says: 'I do not feel heard'. 

Underneath it all is the human need for being of valued. I want to be heard. You don't hear my message, you don't understand me,  therefor you are a bad listener.

To some extend we all are `bad listeners` at some times. Sometimes we are so enthousiast about stuff we hardly hear what others say and in everything they say we hear an encouragement to vent our enthusiasm even more. And that's fine.

Conversations are like relationships (and life in general): messy. 

And that's okay.


In conclusion while writing down some of my thoughts regarding this question I would say it is a great question to ask ourselves regularly: am I listening to hear the other? Or am I listening because I want to bring across the message that is burning in my heart?

There is a time and a place for both. Being aware of the different dynamics with the other as well as ourselves, is what helps us navigate the waters of interpersonal communication. And this is a skill that we will be growing in for the rest of our lives, leading us to become more and more compassionate, enthusiastic, helpful, focused, motivated and more.

I have asked myself this question a couple of times last week and realised I sometimes was not really listening at all. I also have found myself genuinely interested in the other party at a couple of occasions. The realisation of the state I found myself in is truly an amazing thing and I am determined to ask this question with some regularity. It helps me grow. It helps others be heard and valued. 

This question is a great tool!