Keys to Listening


Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri Ph.D. CPC, OCDS

Listening is a simple and natural skill that can be very easy for some people and at times very difficult for many people. The more carefully we listen the better our chance to understand. Distractions, bias, impatience and our own personal frailty may make it more difficult to listen well at times. A good disposition for listening contains at least some of the following qualities:


Nothing communicates love like ones full attention to another or the attentiveness, which notices a person’s needs and disposition.

Willingness to understand

Understanding is always preempted in time and importance by the willingness to understand. One may not understand but their will to listen helps them to be attentive and make efforts, which edify the speaker.


Open-mindedness is an important part of prudence and one must keep an open mind while listening even when disagreement is likely or already present. Without it the listener tends to close out the speaker and understanding becomes very difficult.


One must control one’s own mind while listening in order to stay with the person’s reasoning. This means keeping emotions in check as well as not thinking about a response while waiting for a breath in order to interject. When we think about our response we tend to stop listening to the speaker. We think we understand because the words are familiar but the meaning may be different for the speaker than for ourselves.


It is difficult at times for someone to find the words to express themselves. They may also be saying something that annoys us and patience helps us to listen.


We must watch the face and body of a person while they are speaking. Much can be expressed physically that does not show in the words alone. It is not only what is said but also how it is said. Emotions may play a part and we have to consider the feelings that might be involved.

What do you want from me?


Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri Ph.D. CPC, OCDS

People speak to us for a number of reasons and many communication problems stem from the listener’s failure to recognize what the speaker wants from them. The listener’s response might be quite true and good but it may not be what the speaker is looking for. Experience shows us that when speaking to another person people generally want one or a combination of the following responses.   The speaker generally may want the listener to do the following:

  • Just listen and understand
  • Console and support
  • Help Clarify
  • Confirm
  • Agree
  • Solve a problem
  • Act upon self or another

Just Listen and Understand

People always want to be listened to and to be understood. This must happen for other things to follow. It is the most important response to give. When both parties feel mutually understood tension and discord are diminished. This is true even when the two do not agree. The likelihood of anger erupting is greatly diminished. A priest used to tell the story of how his parents never got angry at each other. At first I thought him to be naïve. However, he proceeded to describe how they conducted their conversations. He said that his parents did something that he had learned to do during his courses in philosophy. One of the rudiments of philosophical discourse is obviously debate. A basic component of debate is that the first party states a position. Before the responding team could offer a rebuttal they had to first state the position of the first party clearly and faithfully. The first party would then acknowledge whether the second team was able to express the essential elements of the first position. Also, in debate, the first cross-examination can only contain clarifying questions. These are the questions that allow the first party to elaborate on points that the listener needs to better understand. After this process is done, the first party confirms the proper understanding and then the rebuttal or opposing position can be presented.

It so happened that this young priest’s parents naturally did this. They always made it a point to understand each other before responding and making sure that their own understanding was consistent with what their spouse intended. As a result, even when they disagreed upon any point, neither party felt insulted because the other did not take the time to sufficiently understand them.

Console or support

People often want consolation and support. A burden seems lighter when shared by someone who cares. This combines with being understood to establish most of what people want most of the time that they speak about anything that is important to them.

Help clarify

People sometimes want to get things out so they can see them more clearly. In this case people simply want to bounce things off of someone else. They come to get some order so that they can make a decision or get their thinking straight.

Agreement or confirmation

People sometimes want someone to confirm that they are right. Sometimes people just want others to agree with them. However, understanding does not mean that one agrees. E.g. “I understand you feel like punching your spouse, but I do not agree you should do it.”

Help solve a problem

People sometimes want you to solve the problem. They want solutions and directions. This is the dynamic that causes the most trouble when someone tries to solve someone else’s problem when the person doesn’t want that kind of help. We will address this next, in “When solving a problem becomes a problem.”

Act upon myself or someone else

When someone wants you to change your behavior or to perform some action then they will know you understand because they see the action. They may want you to act upon someone else. E.g. A wife who wants her husband to do something to change the behavior of their son.   She will know that her husband understands when she sees that he has talked to his son.

A person may want you to do something about your own behavior. E.g. A wife wants her husband to be more attentive or to do things around the house. She will know that her husband understands when she sees that he starts picking up after himself, doing the dishes, cooking, helping with the laundry and whatever other tasks may be on the list.