I think we often confuse listening with hearing. Hearing is involuntary. For those of us with the ability, it just happens. On the other hand, listening is a choice. Imagine you’re a doctor using your stethoscope to evaluate a patient’s heartbeat. You are both hearing and listening, right? Hearing the heartbeat and listening to its quality. You’re undertaking a pretty serious responsibility to both hear and listen.

So, what if you’re not wielding a stethoscope? What if you’re having an important conversation with your boss, your spouse, your teenager, or your mother? Don’t you also have a genuine responsibility to both hear and listen? If you’re telling your supervisor that you intend to use your vacation days in August, and she’s reading an email instead of focusing on what you’re saying, how does that make you feel? Annoyed? Frustrated? Insignificant? Do you demand her attention? Do you quiz her by asking, “what did I just say about my days off?” Or are you nicer about it? “I’ll send you an email to with the dates, so you’ll have it in writing.” But if you’re talking to your teenager, you might be a little less courteous. “Put the phone down and listen to me” is a more realistic approach. You know he’s hearing you, but you want to make sure he’s listening

Is this getting confusing?  Try answering these “yes” or “no” questions.  (Hopefully, the distinction will become clearer.)  

  1. Do you maintain frequent eye contact with the speaker?
  2. Are you encouraging the speaker by nodding and conveying your own understanding?
  3. Do you try to keep an eye on what else is going on in the room?
  4. Does your mind start to wander as soon as you believe you’ve heard enough to understand?
  5. Do you assume you know what the speaker is going to say before he/she says it?
  6. Are you thinking about what you’re going to say in response while the other person is still talking?
  7. Do you need to have the last word?

We all could sharpen our listening skills, and here are three easy steps to take:

Step 1: Remember that listening is respectful, and showing respect to a colleague, friend, family member, service provider, etc., is the right thing to do.

Step 2: Repeat back what you thought you heard. “Just so I fully understand you, are you saying …?” Obviously, there’s some picking and choosing here, otherwise you’ll be annoying, and not a better listener, so use some discretion.

Step 3: Acknowledge that you not only listened, but you actually heard. This is a tricky one because it most likely involves having some empathy, or sympathy, or compassion. By acknowledging the other person’s feelings (irrespective of whether you actually agree), you are validating the entire conversation. “You sound like you’re frustrated.” “I would also feel betrayed if that happened to me.” 

Words help you accurately express yourself so that you believe you’ve been listened to, you’ve been heard, and you’ve been understood.   This is the trifecta for conflict resolution.