Listening to understand

Listening to understand takes practice and asking questions can help you improve this skill.

People like to talk to those who listen to understand. Becoming one of those people takes practice and every one of us could benefit from sharpening our listening skills.

The average person speaks at a rate of 100-130 words per minute, according to This may seem like a lot to comprehend but the truth is, your brain can process so much more than those 130 words per minute and that is what makes it so difficult to concentrate. Your brain is busy engaging in a multitude of other activities and processes while you are listening. What can you do to stay focused on the conversation and understand what is going on in the situation?

Michigan State University Extension encourages you to try utilizing these questions to help identify the concerns and seek clarity:

  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • Can you describe what you observed?
  • When did this happen?
  • Who was there with you?
  • What concerns you most about this situation?
  • How long has this problem existed?
  • I want to make sure I understand you correctly, are you saying…
  • Am I missing any key points?

These basic questions can help you gain additional insight while staying focused on the facts at hand. In addition to asking these questions, you will want to stay focused not on solving the problem, but on identifying the issue that exists and the individuals or groups that are involved. Once you have a clear understanding of the problem, then you can work to identify potential solutions with the parties involved. Taking notes can also be beneficial as you work through this process.

If you have trouble wrapping up these conversations, here are some statements that can help:

  • I will do (action) ….and then get back to you after that.
  • I don’t see that as my role, but what I can do is …
  • Another option is …
  • Another perspective may be…

These conversations do not magically bring about instant solutions but typically require follow-up and additional fact-gathering. You should evaluate if your role was to just listen, take action or share the information with someone else who can handle the situation. Remember, listening to understand takes practice and the more you utilize questions like these, the better you will become. 

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