Communicate with intent to understand


‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’

I’m a huge fan of Stephen Covey’s wisdom. This is one of my favourite habits from his seven. 

You can learn a lot from listening to others, but when you choose to listen with intent to understand you will learn at a much deeper level – about your team and your organisation.

At times, we’re all guilty of not listening actively. Those moments when you nod and smile in the right places. You’re pretending to listen, when you’re really thinking about what to have for dinner or that paper you need to finish before the end of the day.

I’m sure you’ve been on the receiving end of lazy listening. How did it make you feel? Frustrated? Unimportant? Annoyed? Probably all the above. Only recently, a colleague sent me the minutes of a meeting. They were in the same meeting as me, yet the minutes didn’t reflect the conversation we had. It led me to question whether they were present in the room. Were they having an out-of-body experience? Present in person? Yes. In mind, definitely not! The minutes detailed what the person wanted to hear or perhaps thought they heard. 

I like to ask clients a couple of questions around listening: 

Do you and your team listen effectively?

Do people hear what you say to them?  

The response to both questions is often ‘No’.  


I probe a little deeper to understand the reasons for their answers. Classic responses include:

  • “I’m too busy”

  • “We have too much going on in our heads”

  • “It’s not a good time”

  • “I can’t do two things at once”

  • “I get bored when people don’t get to the point”

  • “I’ve heard it all before”

  • “I don’t like the other person”

If you heard these answers from someone you work with, you might call them inattentive and rude. Consider how the other person or people in the conversation might feel as a result. Humans are intuitive. If you won’t give your full attention to someone who wants to speak with you, how are they going to react?


The principles of active listening

Listening is an incredible skill to have in the workplace. When you learn the active listening technique, you’ll become far more effective and efficient in everything you do. When you’re short on time (which, let’s face it, most leaders are), it will help you to manage conversations and situations quickly. 

Active listening is based on the principle of confirming understanding. Try this time-saving approach. 

  1. Talk me through your problem.

  2. Listen to the problem and repeat the key points to validate your understanding.

  3. Ask if you’ve got the facts correct. Have you missed anything?

  4. If there are any gaps in knowledge, ask the other person to fill the missing pieces of information. 

  5. Do the same from the other person’s perspective. Fill in any gaps for them.

  6. Confirm what actions, if any, you need to take as a result of the conversation. 


Active listening in action

Let’s apply this to an everyday situation…

Sam: “Do you know how to make a cup of tea?”

Paul: “Yes, I do.”

Sam: “Talk me through the steps you go through to make a cup of tea”

Paul: “Boil the kettle, pop a teabag in a cup, pour on the boiling water, allow to brew, remove the teabag, add milk, stir and serve.”

Sam: “OK, so I need to boil the kettle, add boiling water to teabag, take the teabag out, add milk, stir and serve. Is that right?”

Paul: “Yes, but you missed out allowing the tea to brew. It’s really important, otherwise the tea won’t taste very nice.”

Paul: “Ah, so how long do I need to leave it to brew?”

Sam: “A couple of minutes should be plenty for a cup of tea. You’ll need to leave it for longer if you’re using a teapot. Best to ask the individual whether they like it strong or weak.”

Paul: “Great, I understand. I’ll go and make us both a brew! How do you like yours?”


More active listening tips

  • Ask specific questions like:

o  What are your thoughts on…?

o  Tell me what I can do to help…

o  Can you explain how to…

  • Try not to interrupt the person speaking. Let them be heard and finish what they are saying. If you feel you need to interject, try saying “I understand”.

  • Make eye contact to show you are listening and interested.

  • Observe the other person’s body language. It can tell you a lot about how their feelings about the subject.

  • To help you remember key details, try building pictures in your mind to depict any actions or challenges.


Listening with intent to understand is an incredibly useful skill, particularly in emotional situations where leaders need detailed information to make decisions. Repetition is annoying and frustrating. Active listening enables you to quickly identify and fill knowledge gaps and avoid going over old ground. Everyone will appreciate being heard and saving precious time.