March 3, 2024

Listen My Children…

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Stephen R. Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

“Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple. Every head is a world.” Cuban Proverb


Listening can connect you with the speaker. How do you listen? With one ear, while thinking about your next words, eyes darting around a room?  Or do you look at the speaker, with actions of nods and verbal expressions that show understanding and appreciation for what is being said?

As I finish grading papers for a graduate level Social Work class, made up of young and not so young adults wanting to become professional Social Workers, I am reminded of the power of listening. The class, The Professional Social Worker, focuses on learning specific skills of deep and accurate listening. These skills challenge the desire to interrupt, interpret or advise.  

During practice lab, students rotate through the roles of practitioner, client and observer to increase listening ability. These basic listening skill are designed to understand, to focus, and to a lesser extent move towards a solution.

During the role play, the practitioner practices listening, the client talks of a real problem, and the observer gives feedback on attending skills used.  The essence of the effort for the practitioner is to reflect in a way that the client is likely to feel understood.  I observed eye contact, head nodding and heard reflections of feeling, reflections of content and questions for clarification, often starting with “what I hear you saying is ..?”    

Through the weeks, all practitioners showed progress in growth   of skills. More interesting was that many “clients” also improved. This process of being a client, of being heard, for 10-15 minutes for several weeks helped. The sessions, for some,provided a safe place for personal understanding, professional growth, and individual focus including reporting back on how they were doing.

Listening to understand is a powerful foundation for change and for enhancing relationships. Couples often seek therapy saying “we don’t communicate”. Typically that means listening is infrequent.

As families join together during this holiday season, review your listening skills. Try listening to understand; it can be powerful for you and loved ones. 



  1. Thanks for highlighting this crucial but overlooked skill. I truly believe that being listened to by another human being is one of the rarest experiences that any of us can have, and the power of that experience is difficult to overrate.