9 Feb 2009

What we *don’t* mean by “listen”

Posted by paulandrew

sxc-hu-obey-hand-498917-c-miguel-ugaldeWhen I tell people that I teach listening, they are often surprised. Some people ask “Can that be taught?” I like to reply “I sure hope so,” with a smile.

But then as the discussion progresses, I realize that the word “listening” means very different things to different people.

For Part I of this article, I’ll consider two of the common interpretations that are *not* what the “listening” in Supportive Listening stand for.

Supportive Listening is not about obedience.

I was at the optometrist and upon hearing that I teach listening, she said “I wish I could teach my son to listen. He never listens to anything that I say.” I asked for more detail (of course) and she went on to say that she’ll tell her five year old son to brush his teeth, and he’ll ignore her and keep playing his video game.

“Do you think he hears you?” I asked.

“Oh yes, he hears me.”

OK so the issue here isn’t about a hearing problem, it’s about obedience—along the lines of “You’d better listen to me or there’s going to be trouble!” This is using the term “listening” in the context of one person holding power over another.

When we say “Supportive Listening,” this isn’t what we mean. 🙂 I can be a Supportive Listener, you can make your request, I can respect that that’s your view, and yet I can still have my own point of view. Just because I hear, understand, and accept what you’re saying, it doesn’t I have to obey it.

Supportive Listening is not about agreement.

So I’m talking with “A,” well more accurately I’m having a “heated discussion” with “A,” and she declares “You’re not listening to me!”

Aha, a challenge! (Yes, I’ll admit, I was contributing to the heat.) And so I repeat back to her exactly what she just said, and I smugly say “Did I get that right?”

And she replies, “Yes but that’s what I don’t understand! If you heard what I said, why are we still arguing?”

Ahh, and therein lies another definition for listening. That if I’m actually listening to you, listening carefully, and really hearing you, then I’ll agree with you. Right?


I remember being in an energetic conversation with a good friend many years ago, on the topic of spirituality. I kept trying to explain something to her, but she just wasn’t getting it, or so I thought.

Finally she stopped, eloquently summarized what I’d said, checked to see that she’d understood (she had) and then patiently explained that her views were different. Ahh.

So she’d listened very competently—she just didn’t agree. From this experience I came to understand a common listening fallacy that goes like this:

“If you only understood my point of view, then you’d agree that it’s the right one.”


Supportive Listening is great because it gives me the chance to listen really carefully to you, accept your point of view as yours, and still be my own, perfectly acceptable, person—a person who has a different view than you. It’s “live and let live.”

The beauty here is that with Supportive Listening, you can be understood and respected without us having to agree on whom or what is “right.”

Just because I hear, understand, and accept doesn’t mean that I agree.

There you have it: Supportive Listening is about neither obedience nor agreement. So then what *is* Supportive Listening about? I’ll cover that in my next article.

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