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June 2024
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Listen to Language

Get curious about context and implications.

By Bill Brown, DTM

Illustration of a toolbox
Illustration by Bart Browne

Language is a form of communication. But do we use it to communicate? Far too often, we use the time that someone else is talking to plan our next comment. Far too often, we fail to listen to what is being said, or we jump to a conclusion about what someone is communicating.

The situation is further complicated when a translation is involved. After all, the phrase “lost in translation” is common for a reason. There are frequently significant differences in languages.

So what can we do to alleviate communication problems?

One solution is to improve our listening skills.

Listening goes way beyond letting the sound waves from someone else’s mouth hit our eardrums. It involves seeking to understand what someone else is truly saying and thinking.

I believe that the key to effective listening is curiosity. In other words, wanting to know what the other person meant by what they said or wrote.

Curiosity centers your thoughts on the other person, rather than yourself. That is where communication must start. The key question to ask yourself is “Curiosity about what?” And there are two different aspects to consider to ensure you’re exploring that curiosity effectively.

First, truly hear what the person said. That seems straightforward, right? Or is it?

As you have no doubt noticed in dictionaries, many, if not most, words have multiple meanings, and frequently the meanings are quite different. How is the speaker or writer using a particular word? And what if they are using slang? If someone refers to something being “really hot,” are they saying that you will get burned if you touch it, or that it is really popular?

[Listening] involves seeking to understand what someone else is truly saying and thinking.

Communicating in different languages can also make it difficult to understand the original message. Many words do not have an exact corresponding word when translated in our own language. When that happens, a translation may not capture the full and true meaning of the original statement.

Second, explore what they are thinking. Let yourself be curious about implications, the extra meaning that comes along with the stated words. In other words, if this is true, what else is true? A mother of two boys told me once that she told one of them, “Stop hitting your brother.” So he started kicking him. I suspect that this boy is destined to become a lawyer.

Attitudes are also a part of the meaning. My wife loves asparagus. I don’t. If she offers me some, is she thinking “I will give you another chance to enjoy this great tasting food.” Or is she teasing me, knowing that I will not find that opportunity enticing?

One reason that we might jump to a wrong understanding is that we approach the conversation with our own assumptions. And that can cause us to only hear or see one possible meaning, the one that we expect to hear. This is called bias confirmation.

The key is that, if we are to be a good listener, we need to be able to recognize ambiguity or wiggle room in someone else’s statement. Sometimes it involves the differences in word meanings. Frequently it comes in the form of a vague pronoun. If someone says “he” when there are two men in the discussion, which one is meant?

Another form is where the person’s statement doesn’t make sense with what they have said before or what you know to be their attitude toward a subject.

To adequately understand what the other person said, you need to resolve any ambiguities and that involves asking questions. Even if you think you know what they mean, test it to be sure.

In this Toastmasters Podcast episode, presentation coach and author Joel Schwartzberg will enlighten you with valuable tips on how leaders can be more effective listeners.

I usually like to start with open questions, those that don’t lead the person in a particular direction. One of my favorite ones is “in what sense?” That is a request for a person to elaborate on what they just said, being more specific. But it allows them to answer it in any way that they want. And you will frequently be surprised at what you learn.

At times you need some specific information, or you want to tie someone down who is trying to be vague. Asking a closed question would be appropriate in this instance. “Senator, are you voting for the resolution or not?” A yes or no answer is what you are looking for.

Language is an attempt to communicate, or at least it should be. But frequently it takes work to make that communication happen. People may think that they are being specific, after all, they know what they mean. It’s your job to make sure that you truly understand that meaning as well.


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