The importance of listening to understand (not just reply)

For all of those parents starting summer holidays, this week's Summer Story involves a father failing to communicate with his daughter...

The message of any communication is what the other person actually understands - not what you intend them to understand.

So a hugely important aspect of effective listening is to understand the motivations behind the other person’s communication.

This will help you establish exactly what the other person is trying to communicate.

This is particularly true in the working world.

Trying to understand the motivations behind someone’s communication will help with:

  • receiving negative feedback (reminding yourself that their motivation is to help you improve and progress);

  • dealing with difficult people (think about what might be driving their behaviour);

  • managing your staff constructively (establish what are the reasons behind disappointing performance).

It also helps take you out of an “us and them” mindset: by trying to understand what is motivating them, you build empathy, which in turn helps build effective relationships.

And of course, by developing better communication, you are helping achieve better results - or avoid unfortunate ones.

The story of Arachne and Athene illustrates this...

There once was a woman who was a hugely talented weaver.

Her name was Arachne, and she lived on an island in Greece, with her father.

Arachne was very proud of her talent.

She never stopped telling anyone who would listen that she was the best weaver in Greece.

She even said that she was a better weaver than the goddess Athene.

Arachne’s father was worried by the way Arachne boasted about her weaving skills.

He begged her not to compare herself to the goddess Athene, because he feared she would be angered and take revenge.

But Arachne ignored him.

She even challenged Athene to a weaving contest.

Not long after, an old woman visited Arachne’s house.

She told her to withdraw her challenge.

Arachne’s father again asked her to do it, conscious of the dangers of challenging the gods.

But Arachne laughed at the old woman, and said again that she was a better weaver than Athene, and could prove it in a competition.

The old woman was very angry at this.

The next moment, the old woman transformed into the goddess Athene.

Her father was terrified, and begged Arachne to apologise.

However, rather than being afraid, and despite her father’s warnings, Arachne just repeated her challenge.

So Athene decided to teach her a lesson.

The weaving contest began.

The woman and the goddess worked at their looms all day, creating marvellous designs.

When the day was finished, the two tapestries were compared.

Athene’s tapestry showed the gods in all their glory.

But Arachne’s showed the gods as drunken fools.

Angered, Athene slashed at Arachne’s tapestry, then turned her rage on Arachne herself.

Finally scared of the power of the goddess, and fearing an even worse fate, Arachne tied a noose around her neck and hanged herself from a beam.

Arachne’s father was distraught and begged Athene to spare his daughter.

Moved by his sorrow, and perceiving the love that motivated him, Athene listened to his request.

As she was still hanging from the beam, first, Arachne's hair fell out; then her nose, ears and legs fell off.

Her arms disappeared, so her fingers were attached to the sides of her body.

And finally, she shrank until all that was left - was a spider, hanging from a thread.

If only Arachne had listened to the intention behind her father's communication - he was only trying to keep her safe.

How often do we miss the intention behind communications from our work colleagues (or our family...)?

Things To Do and Consider

  • Think about a time when you had a difficult conversation with a work colleague. What might have been the motivation behind their communication? How could you have listened to the message underneath rather than the words, to get a better result from the conversation?

  • Next time you have a conversation with a friend, practice thinking about the motivation behind their communication. If they are letting off steam about something, are they simply venting frustration or are they actually seeking reassurance from you that they did the right thing? The more you practice, the easier this will get.

  • If you manage staff (formally or informally), before you next have a performance-related conversation, think before the meeting about what you are trying to achieve with this communication: to help them improve, which will mean they are more likely to progress, plus the whole team would get better results, benefiting everyone. Experiment with explaining this at the start of the meeting, and see if it affects the way in which your communication is received.

Watch out for the next Summer Story!

And if you are interested in getting clarity in your career, get in touch: booking for my next transformational one-day Career Retreat opens on Friday 26th July!

Email me at or find me on LinkedIn...

Happy Summer!