Accessible version of Listening to understand

The accessible version of the Listening to understand learning module.

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Listening to understand will help you to learn:

  • Practical applications including skills and strategies to be an empathetic listener
  • The power of silence
  • Effective ways to manage nonverbal communication
  • How to understand others' perspectives.

To access the non-conforming version of this module, see Listening to understand.

Below is the transcript for the Listen to understand YouTube video.


Listening to understand allows us to build trust by showing others we want to learn about their perspective, rather than just sharing ours. It also prevents misunderstanding and frustration, particularly when people are stressed or in crisis.

Listening to understand can be a great first step to defusing tension. When we really listen to understand, we can imagine what they're experiencing and how this might affect them. While it can feel uncomfortable at first, if you learn to resist interrupting or constantly talking, this silence can give people space to reflect and process. Doing this can also help reduce pressure, so they can think more clearly about what they feel safe sharing with you.

93% of communication is nonverbal. What you think can show up in the tiny muscles around your eyes and in your body language. If people get the sense you're judging them, they're not likely to trust you, and communication will be more difficult.

Learn to manage both body language and eye movement by keeping an open mind. It's easy to jump to conclusions, make assumptions, or feel defensive, especially when talking to people in distress. Instead stay curious by silently wondering what else they want to share, rather than trying to solve or fix it.

If you take the time to really listen and understand their experience, rather than jumping to solutions, they'll be more likely to come to a solution themselves, and they'll be much more committed to making that solution work if it's their idea. Encourage them to keep talking and to clarify their thinking by acknowledging what they're saying. You can do this with a smile, a nod, or with verbal cues like, "yes," "OK," "I see," and "go on." Doing this, rather than sharing your thoughts, allows the individual to process as they go.

When they're done sharing their experience and ideas, it's time for you to check-in to see if you got it right. Use language like, [? "let ?] me check in to see if I [? understand"; ?] [? "it ?] sounds like you [? feel--" ?] Don't worry if you agree or disagree. Your task is to understand their perspective.

Make space for the person to clarify what they really meant. Sometimes, when we're upset, we say things we don't mean or respond in ways we don't intend. Until they agree you understand how they feel about the situation, you haven't yet listened to understand.

When people are stressed, experiencing a mental health concern, or are in crisis, listening to understand is the first step. Once you arrive at an understanding of their perspective, you can ask them how you could help. Even if they don't want anything from you right now, they'll feel heard and understood. Be sure to check in with them in a day or two to see if anything changed.


The Listening to understand concepts were developed to build on active listening skills. They can help you respond to a person who is upset or experiencing a mental health issue like depression or anxiety.

Active listening teaches us to focus on the individual, show we are paying attention and to respond appropriately. Listening to understand builds on that and helps to defuse tension.

The listening to understand concepts are:


Seek to learn the other person’s perspective, without agreeing or disagreeing with it.


Get comfortable with silence when the other person is struggling to respond.

Body language

Manage body language that may signal you are uncomfortable, annoyed, impatient or feeling something else that may be unsettling to the other person.

Open mind

Stay curious about the other person’s perspective rather than jumping to conclusions or judging their reaction.


Put understanding ahead of rushing to solutions.


Let them know you are really listening.


Show you both heard and understood what is being communicated.


Give them a chance to clarify or correct what they mean.


Follow-up after the conversation.

Take a few moments to reflect on each of these points before moving on to learn when listening to understand matters most.

When listening to understand matters most

Listening to understand is most important when the individual is distressed or upset for any reason. At these times, your ability to offer a quick solution or answer may actually make the situation worse. By taking the time to learn the perspective of the individual, even if you don't agree with it, you have the opportunity to engage them in problem-solving. Empathy is imagining what the experience is like for them and listening for understanding allows you to demonstrate your empathy.

Learn more about some specific situations where this approach is especially useful such as:

A mental health issues

Those who are stressed or experiencing a mental health issue or illness can have unhelpful, repetitive thoughts.

Negative thoughts 

Negative thoughts can be self-perpetuating, overwhelming and make it hard to think of solutions.


People who are distressed may have a difficult time recognizing and explaining what they’re experiencing. They may also find it hard to understand what they need.


Individuals may feel vulnerable when experiencing strong emotions or struggling with their mental health – especially at work.


All of these strategies are central to listening to understand:

  • Take time to listen to what is going on from their perspective.
  • Resist offering your opinion. Instead, ask questions to find out more about what is going on for them.
  • Avoid problem-solving until you fully understand their perspective – and if they want or need your solutions.
  • Encourage them to keep talking by saying things like:
    • Yes
    • What is that like for you?
    • How have you been coping?
    • I see
    • Go on
    • Tell me more
  • Show empathy over sympathy by confirming what you heard and what you understand about how they are feeling about the situation

Do's and Don’ts 


Don't jump to solutions or give advice

Do ask questions and let them provide their thoughts.


Don't agree, disagree or critique.

Do listen without judgement.

Body language

Don't fold your arms in front of your chest.

Do maintain open and calm body language.

Facial expression

Don't have tense in your face.

Do maintain open and calm facial expressions.


Don't compare their problem to something you’ve gone through.

Do listen and ask questions.


Don't interrupt when they may be thinking.

Do be ok with silence while they think.

The power of silence

When there is silence, the individual may be thinking about:

  • Whether they can trust you
  • What they will share
  • How they can explain what they are going through

When distressed, people need time to process their thoughts. Here are some approaches you can use to remind yourself to wait before responding:

  • Intentionally pause for at least 30 seconds after asking a question.
  • Use a subtle cue for yourself, like taking a slow breath or a drink of water.
  • Intentionally pause for 3 seconds before responding to their questions for you.
  • When pausing, be sure to relax physically and emotionally to create a safer space.
  • Take a stance of open curiosity about what they will tell you next.
  • Pause to notice their body language and facial expressions.
  • Share that you are not in a rush and that they can take their time to respond

Strategies to avoid judging

Listening to understand is all about learning someone's perspective rather than making assumptions. You can use strategies from the list below to avoid jumping to judgement:

  • Focus on your role in supporting the person to do their best at work.
  • Remember you are not trying to “fix” the person – you are listening to understand.
  • Quiet your mind by noticing thoughts you are having and letting them go.
  • Ask questions, rather than responding with advice.
  • Dig deeper by asking them, “What else” or “Tell me more”

Effective verbal and non-verbal communication

Body language, including eye movement and facial tension can communicate that you are judging or uncomfortable with what a person is sharing.

If you’re able:

  • Repeat the words they say in your mind to really absorb them.
  • Take 3 slow, deep breaths into your belly.
  • Soften the muscles around your eyes.
  • Notice any tension in your shoulders and take a moment to relax them.
  • Flex your calf muscles a few times to ground yourself.

Remember to ask for clarification rather than assuming you understand. Share what you've heard using phrases such as:

  • It sounds like…
  • I am hearing...
  • They seem to have really upset you…
  • I am sensing you are getting discouraged.
  • It sounds like you are unsatisfied with the situation.

We can sound like we are minimizing or dismissing what someone is going through by saying things like:

  • These things happen
  • There's no reason for you to get upset about this
  • You'll get through it
  • The same thing happened to me
  • Talk to so-and-so. The same thing happened to them

Keep in mind that when we are upset, we sometimes say things we do not mean or respond in ways we do not intend.

Before moving on to next steps or developing solutions you may want to ask some clarifying questions:

  • What do you mean when you say...
  • I that what you meant?
  • Is there more I need to know?
  • What needs to change about this?

When people feel heard and understood, without feeling judged, they are more likely to collaborate with you on a solution.


When people are stressed, experiencing a mental health concern or in crisis, an issue is likely not going to be resolved in one conversation. In fact, it may be better to deal with solutions at a separate time when emotions are not as raw. You can end this conversation with a shared understanding about the individual’s perspective on the situation:

  • Check in to see how they are feeling.
  • Ask them what they think might be a good next step.
  • Let them know what you can do or what other supports are available to them.
  • Set a date for a follow-up meeting.

Knowledge check

See Responses below to see the answers to the following 2 questions.

  1. Why is listening to understand a worthwhile skill to develop?
    • It helps to resolve tension and conflict when people are distressed.
    • It moves beyond active listening because you are taking the time to understand their perspective.
    • When people feel seen and heard they can often identify their own solutions.
    • All of the above.
  2. What are some things to avoid when you aim to listen to understand?
    • Judgment
    • Jumping to solutions
    • Showing empathy
    • Both Judgment and jumping to solutions


  1. All of the above – Listening to understand is a powerful way to reduce tension and conflict and to show you care. When people are in distressed, they can get stuck in the fight-flight-freeze response and it’s hard for them to move forward and find solutions. By taking the time to listen to understand, you help them to feel safe so the distress response is interrupted. This allows time for the individual to process their thoughts in a healthier way.
  1. Both Judgment and jumping to solutions – When we’re distressed, we often get stuck in negative thought loops that make it hard to see our way out. We can feel judged, making it hard to open up. By listening to understand, we make space for them to feel seen and heard so they can move forward from what’s causing the distress.

Tip sheet

Congratulations on learning to listen to understand. We've put together a tip sheet with the main learning points of this module. We recommend you save or print it as a reference. There are also free resources you can use if you want a deeper dive on this subject.

View the Listening to understand tip sheet | PDF

Additional resources

Below are free resources you can use if you want a deeper dive on this subject.

Preparing for a difficult conversation

Taking a few moments to reflect on your assumptions and intentions before beginning a difficult conversation can set you up to be more effective.

Distinguish acknowledgement from agreement

When people are told their opinions are wrong, they’re likely to become defensive or shut down. Learn to acknowledge their perspective without judgment to provide an opportunity to have a supportive conversation.

Body language awareness

Effective communication isn’t limited to the words we say. Our non-verbal communication includes body language, tone of voice, eye contact and facial expressions.

Listen to understand

Listening is an important communication skill that becomes even more critical when you're listening to someone who's emotionally distressed. These tips and strategies can help.

What were you thinking?

Our thoughts are not facts. They are often assumptions, reactions or unfair self-criticisms. Learn to challenge your thoughts to manage your mind.

Listening to understand for leaders

This approach can help you understand the perspective of someone who is upset.

Listening to understand YouTube video.


We welcome your feedback on this module or any of our resources. Please contact us with your suggestions.



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