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.

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Why this matters

Listening for understanding is a concept originally developed for Mental Health Works to bridge the gap between active listening and responding when someone is in crisis. Active listening is a common approach to being respectful and attentive when someone is talking. It includes keeping your focus on the individual, demonstrating that you are paying attention, and responding appropriately. Many individuals who have mastered this skill may still be exasperated by the response (or non-response) they get when applying the active listening technique to someone who may be distressed or overwhelmed. 

Listening to understand goes beyond hearing the words, to ensure you understand their intention or perspective. When people are distressed, they may not always say exactly what they mean. Giving someone the safety and space to articulate – and then clarify or correct what they say – can give you a much better chance of understanding their perspective. 

When we jump to conclusions or make assumptions about what someone is experiencing, we may make the situation even worse. Even if their perspective seems unrealistic to you, once you know what it is, you're in a much better position to have an effective discussion with them.

Listening to understand is one important skill when Strengthening relationships

Listening for understanding provides the following strategies to help understand the perspective of a distressed person without causing further harm.

Try our short eLearning module which includes key concepts related to this topic. You can share this with others or use it as part of a more in-depth learning program.

Allow pauses

When stressed out, we may engage in repetitive thoughts. It is as if there is endless chatter in your head that you are unable to stop or even quiet down. While the individual may seem unemotional to the observer, on the inside they may be overloaded with constant, upsetting and fitful thoughts. In the case of depression, these repetitive thoughts can take the form of negative thoughts about oneself, others or the world in general. Or it can include thoughts of despair or hopelessness including thoughts of suicide. In the case of anxiety-related disorders, the repetitive thoughts (and often physical feelings) can be of impending doom, fear or worry. In these cases, concentration can be a challenge.

When you ask someone who's experiencing distress, “What's going on?”, the response that seems like a long, silent pause may not be a refusal to answer you. Rather it could be that they are flooded with a flurry of thoughts and/or questions that could include:

  • Do I trust you?
  • If I tell you, who will you tell?
  • Will you think less of me if I tell you?
  • Will you want to get rid of me, or deny me a promotion if I tell you what I am dealing with?
  • What should I tell you?
  • How much should I share?
  • Will you think I am making this up?
  • Will you think I am being a baby?
  • How can I even start?
  • What words will I use?
  • What if I start to cry?
  • And so on…

When you interrupt the pause, you interrupt the thought process and you may shut the person down altogether. Instead, be open to pauses. If like many people, you are not used to silence, this can feel uncomfortable for you, but it can also provide the breakthrough you need to understand other’s perspectives. When you're calm, and give them space to think, they will feel less pressure to come up with an answer.

Manage eye expressions

Do you know that the majority of body language comes from the area around your eyes? Think about when you know someone has lied. Did you feel the corners of your eyes pull down a little? Now think of someone who is prone to ridiculous exaggeration. Not quite the same movement of your eyes, but movement nonetheless. Think about someone who is delightful. Your eyes probably involuntarily smiled. Some say the eyes are the windows to the soul, but in this context, we are concerned that the eyes are the window to your doubt, judgment or criticism of the distressed individual in front of you. Without meaning to give away any of your private thoughts, you may allow your eyes to express these feelings.

Some have asked if they should wear sunglasses or close their eyes when addressing a distressed person. Fortunately, we have a better option. It is called “taking a stance of open curiousity”. The area around our eyes responds to our own inner chatter – those thoughts about people and ideas that are in our heads. When someone says something that we don’t believe, it is our thought such as when we doubt the truth of what they say that triggers the response. By slowing down or stopping the inner chatter, we can also manage involuntary eye movement. The way to do this is to fill the mind with one message – “And what else?” This curiosity about what else the individual has to say can help us to maintain an open mind, hence the term “stance of open curiosity”.

The reason that this can be so important when listening to individuals who may be distressed, depressed or anxious is that if they feel you're judging or doubting them, it would be reasonable for them to mistrust you. If they mistrust you, communicating with them will be much more difficult.

Postpone evaluation or advice

Many people who are great communicators can think on their feet, analyze situations, make quick decisions, and come up with advice. All of these are important skills, but all can also backfire when trying to communicate with someone who's distressed. The reason for this paradox is that when someone is distressed they may have a difficult time articulating what they are experiencing and an even greater challenge in stating what they need. The more we try to pressure or rush them to solutions, the more opportunity we have to make the situation worse. We can do this by eroding their trust in us, their ability to handle the stress and ultimately their self-confidence. When we really support the individual to come to their own conclusions, it's much more likely they'll be motivated to take effective action. Most of us put more effort into a change when it's our own ideas than when it's someone else's idea.

The skill of listening for understanding is intended to achieve one thing – your understanding of the perspective of the other person. It is not intended to provide the solution – that comes later. So resisting imposing your own solution or evaluation of the problem can not only be better for the other person, in the long run, it helps avoid them simply agreeing with your advice to make you feel right.

Seek clarification

Sometimes when we're upset, we may say things we don’t really mean or respond in ways we didn't intend. Although many of us may see ourselves as good listeners and consider it a point of pride to have heard EXACTLY what the other person said, we need to resist jumping to correction when someone responds, “That’s not what I said.” Maybe it was exactly what they said, but what they meant to say is something different. Give them a break. Allow the person to clarify…to help you understand what they really meant. It is only when they agree you heard what they intended you to hear that you have reached your goal of listening for understanding.

When we listen to understand, we focus on the individual, their perspective and their needs, not our own. These skills take time to fully develop but can be applied right now. There is very little risk and a substantial potential for benefit if you try.

10-minute e-learning

Use this PDF as a reminder of the listening to understand concepts.

An accessible version is also available.

For more eLearning topics, see Microlearning modules


  1. Baynton, M.A. (2011). Resolving Workplace Issues.
Contributors include.articlesDr. Joti SamraMary Ann BayntonWorkplace Strategies team 2007-2021

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