Listening to understand for leaders

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

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Mental Health Works™ originally developed the concept of listening to understand to bridge the gap between active listening and responding to someone in crisis. Active listening is a common approach to showing respect and attention when someone else is talking. It includes keeping your focus on the individual, demonstrating that you’re paying attention and responding appropriately. However, many people who’ve mastered the active listening technique may still be exasperated by the response (or non-response) they get when applying it to someone who is upset or may be experiencing a mental health issue such as depression or an anxiety-related disorder.

Listening to understand provides the following strategies to help you 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

Many mental health issues or pressures take the form of repetitive thoughts. It’s as if there’s endless chatter in your head you can’t stop or quiet down. While the person may seem unemotional to you, they may be overloaded with constant, upsetting and fitful thoughts on the inside.

If the person is depressed, this can take the form of repetitive negative thoughts about themselves, others or the world in general. Or, they can include thoughts of despair, hopelessness or suicide. In the case of anxiety-related disorders, the other person can have repetitive thoughts (and often physical feelings) 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?” a long, silent pause may not be a refusal to answer you. Rather, they may be 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’m dealing with?
  • What should I tell you?
  • How much should I share?
  • Will you think I’m making this up?
  • Will you think I’m 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 other person’s thought process, and they may shut down altogether. Instead, be open to pauses. This can feel uncomfortable if, like many leaders, you’re not used to silence, but it can also provide the breakthrough you need to understand the employee’s perspectives. When you’re calm and give them space to think, they’ll feel less pressure and be better able to come up with an answer.

Remember that it is not your job to diagnose or give advice on an employee’s health or personal issues. The ultimate goal here is for you to understand their perspective so you can focus on your job, which is to help them be successful at work. When we jump to conclusions or make assumptions about what someone is experiencing, we’ll likely provide the wrong solution. Even if their perspective seems unrealistic to you, you’ll be in a much better position to work with them on solutions once you know what it is.

Manage eye expressions

Did you know that most body language comes from the area around your eyes? Think about when you know someone’s lied. Do you feel the corners of your eyes pull down a little? Now think of someone who’s prone to ridiculous exaggeration. Your eyes don’t quite move in the same way, but they move nonetheless. Think about someone who’s delightful. Your eyes probably involuntarily lifted.

Some say the eyes are the windows to the soul, but in this context, we’re concerned that the eyes are the windows to your doubt, judgment or criticism of the distressed person 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’s called “taking a stance of open curiosity.” The area around our eyes responds to our own inner chatter – your thoughts about people and ideas. When someone says something we don’t believe, our inner thoughts of doubt trigger the response. By slowing down or stopping the inner chatter, we can manage involuntary eye movement. The way to do this (without hypnosis or mind-altering drugs) is to fill the mind with one message: “And what else?” Being curious about what else the other person has to say can help us maintain an open mind, hence the term “stance of open curiosity.”

This can be so important when listening to people who may be distressed, depressed or anxious. If they feel you’re judging or doubting them, they won’t trust you. If they don’t trust you, communicating with them will be much more difficult.

Postpone evaluation or advice

Many leaders are in positions of authority because someone believed they could think on their feet, analyze situations, make quick decisions and come up with solutions. All of these skills are important, but they can also backfire when you’re trying to work with distressed employees. This is because people who’re distressed sometimes have a difficult time articulating what they’re experiencing and stating what they need. The more we try to pressure or rush them to solutions, the more we can 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.

In addition, we’re afraid we’ll be blamed if our solutions fail, even if we call in the experts and consult the literature on the subject. When we really support the employee to come to a solution themselves, they’ll be much more committed to its success, even when the going gets tough. It’s human nature for us to put more effort into our own plans for success than we would with plans imposed on us by others.

The skill of listening to understand is intended to achieve one thing – your understanding of the other person’s perspective. It isn’t intended to provide the solution – that comes later. You can read more about that part in Developing employee plans for leaders.

By refraining from imposing your own solution to the problem, you help the employee avoid simply agreeing with your advice to make you feel right. 

Reflect back

Show that you’re listening and understanding. Encourage employees to keep talking and give them an opportunity to clarify their thoughts and feelings if you seem to be off track. Make eye contact, smile, nod your head, and make comments, such as yes, okay, aha, ah, um, oh, go on.

Paraphrase what the other person says. Reflect what you heard back to the other person. Don’t parrot back the same words, but rather use your own words to rephrase what they said. This way you demonstrate your understanding.

  • Use phrases such as:
    • It seems that...
    • So you’re saying...
    • It looks as though...
    • It sounds like...
    • What I’m hearing is...
    • In other words...
    • I get the impression that...
    • You mean...
    • You feel that...
    • I’m sensing...
    • I wonder if...

Reflect the other person’s feelings and meanings. Sometimes the literal content of a message is less important than the underlying feelings, thoughts and opinions. When an employee talks to you while experiencing an intense emotion, like anger, frustration or anxiety, try to identify the emotion so they know you recognize how they feel.

  • For example:
    • It seems that he really upset you
    • I get the impression that you’re pretty frustrated about...
    • I’m sensing that you’re quite discouraged
    • I feel that you’re unhappy with your situation

For example: If an employee says, “I’m finally finished with that stupid project!”, you could reflect back: “It sounds like you had a hard time with this project,” How you say this is as important as what you say here. If you come across as patronizing, sarcastic or passive-aggressive, the employee will likely shut down. Communicating with clarity involves your words and body language.

Seek clarification

Sometimes when we’re upset, we say things we don’t really mean or respond in ways we don’t intend.

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. However, we need to resist jumping to when someone responds, “That’s not what I said.” Maybe it was exactly what they said, but they meant to say something different.

Give them a break. Allow the person to clarify what they said so you understand what they really meant. You’ll only reach your goal of understanding their perspective when they agree you heard what they intended you to hear.

Summarize the other person’s message. A good way to capture the essence of what someone has expressed is to summarize their main messages from time to time or at the end of your conversation. This can be particularly important if you reached an agreement or decision regarding the next steps to ensure that both parties have the same understanding of the agreement.

Ask clarifying questions. If you don’t completely understand the employee’s message, ask clarifying questions. For example:

  • What I thought you just said is... Is that what you meant?
  • Sorry, I didn’t follow that. What are you saying?
  • What do you mean when you say...?
  • Could you give me an example?
  • Can you tell me more...?
  • How was that for you? What are you feeling about that?
  • It sounds like you’re pretty upset. Did something happen?
  • So how will you deal with that?
  • What do you think should be done about this situation?

When you develop solutions to performance problems from only your perspective, the solutions never quite resolve the real problem and could create a revolving door of issues.

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.

You can use listening to understand as a starting point for engaging your employees in developing solutions to their problems from their perspective.

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.articlesMary Ann Baynton

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