Polly Chester

Honing the Skills That Allow You to Understand, Rather Than Waiting to Respond

Most of us have different social selves that we embody, based on the environments we find ourselves in. Therefore, one’s interpersonal skills always need fine-tuning. Here’s how.


Every year, about a week before my recreation leave begins, my tired brain starts to think tangential, bizarre thoughts about the social construction of academia and how it doesn’t really feel like a “real” job. The work itself is difficult to quantify in the same way as building a house, arguing a case in court, conducting a dinner service, or performing an operation—work where there’s a clear beginning and end. Last week, driving colleagues home from an interpersonal skills examination we’d just conducted, I verbalized some of these existential musings about my job and was met with an eerie silence from the back seat.

I realized that perhaps it’s just me that feels like I’ve fallen through the looking-glass.

In my main academic teaching area of interpersonal skills, the goal is to enhance and develop interpersonal behavior for the purpose of implementing compassionate, authentic, and appropriate care in allied health disciplines. The academic foundations are lifted from the social sciences, locating them at the warmer, fuzzier end of the science continuum. The reason the work feels like it never ends is that learning the skill sets is scaffolded by the premises of lifelong learning and humility. The degree to which we achieve competence in communicating can be measured by the degree of perfection we achieve in our relationships (for most people, that’s far from perfect and if you think all your relationships are perfect, this may indicate intrapersonal concerns). Therefore, we must continue to learn how to improve communication throughout our academic, professional, and personal lives. Students don’t walk out interpersonally qualified so much as laden with nauseating awareness of how difficult communication can be (especially in health—I have many, many anecdotes), and also fortified with interpersonal skill sets that can be molded and applied to social situations where receiving and sending information and managing interactions is required.


You may have heard this technique paraphrased as “listening to understand, rather than listening to respond.” If you would like to work on your skill in this area, here’s how to practice …


Many of us will be familiar with having different social selves that we embody, based on the environments we are in. Therefore, the way you communicate at work is different to how you do at home, the gym, at coffee with your best friend, out on a first date, and on your own. Your social self is sharpened, colored, diluted, amplified, and contrasted by the amount of power you embody and how you perceive your social role within a given space, not to mention the role of things like physiology, energy, enduring personality characteristics, and fluctuating moods. Therefore, interpersonal consistency is difficult to maintain, not just because using the same social self isn’t really appropriate across different environments, but because we are putting in varying levels of effort and time.

I discuss these kinds of things in my lectures with students, and there’s a number who feel that such discussions are of marginal value and relevance and that the study of interpersonal skills belongs in the realm of common sense rather than academia. However, a much larger number embrace the experience celebrate their interpersonal wins and insights, many wishing they took a similar course in high school. Many lament over how their life and relationships could have been different if they’d studied interpersonal skills before (insert excruciating interpersonal event here). Fueled by learning new skills, they rejoice in newfound self-awareness and have solemn, meaningful discussions about how to avoid repeating past mistakes.

After five years of teaching interpersonal skills, I recognize that during trimester when I’m lecturing, I am at my best in professional relationships but at my worst in my personal relationships, because it feels like bringing work home. Once I go on holidays is when the contrast becomes more obvious because my efforts in my personal relationships increase, and my relationships with friends, family, and my partner improve exponentially. I know it’s counter-intuitive and I wish that such laser-lit self-awareness always led to sustained change; the fact that it doesn’t, I put down to the imperfection that comes with being beautifully, unpredictably imperfect and human. So, if I’ve neglected my personal relationships for a while, I put the work in whenever I can—I’m not saying it’s okay to run hot and cold or that I can’t improve, but giving a nod to the fact that balance tends to occur over time, not on a day-to-day basis. In one’s garden of relationships, cultivating health and growth requires ongoing work; the blooms you treasure the most are the ones you should nurture, for they are the ones you’ll miss the most if you let them perish.

I know exactly where you need to start if you’re interested in cultivating your skills, whether it be for personal or professional means, and that’s with improving your capacity to listen and receive information. Prioritizing the other person’s information first is an evidence-based strategy that balances the rights and needs of both parties. If you hear the other’s perspective first, you are then in a position to respond appropriately and your own narrative may change significantly as a result of obtaining new insights. When executed mindfully, authentically following and attending to someone else’s perspective is a wonderful gift to both of you. The other person feels heard and understood, and you have the benefit of new insights. You may have heard this technique paraphrased as “listening to understand, rather than listening to respond.” If you would like to work on improving your skill in this area, here’s how to practice:

  1. Find a partner to practice with, label yourselves as the “sender” and the “receiver” (you are the receiver);
  2. Ask the sender to talk about anything they wish to, for approximately three minutes. It could be about their pet, their job, their late mother, their journey to work today (tip: if the narrative contains some emotive content, even better);
  3. As the receiver, you listen, and the catch is, you are not allowed to respond verbally, in any way at all, or make any noises. You must demonstrate the following of and attending to the sender’s story using only facial expressions, eye contact, posture, and other non-verbal skills such as nodding or shaking your head. You must use your body language and non-verbal skills to say everything you’d usually say with your voice;
  4. At the end of the three minutes, reflect with your partner on their experience of the conversation. Was there anything that you could do to be more attentive? Did they feel like you were meeting them where they were at? And what about you? Were you frustrated not being able to respond? Were there responses you were rehearsing in your mind driving you nuts?
  5. Swap roles (you as the sender, your partner as the receiver), and ask the same reflective questions afterward. What did the receiver do that made you feel heard and comfortable? Is there something else they could have done (other than responding verbally) that would have made you feel more comfortable?

This simple exercise teaches us a lot about the art of authentic, appreciative listening. It feels good (and sometimes scary!) to be given the space to be able to fully explore the contents of your own mind, and giving this gift to another person is priceless. It also teaches us about what attending and following are, and how to implement them. We are placing our attention squarely on the narrative of the person we’re listening to, and following their story for the purpose of broadening our own understanding, and encouraging them to keep going.

When I meet students at the beginning of each trimester, I say something along the lines of “I’m not lecturing interpersonal skills because mine are perfect. I’m lecturing because I have expertise in the subject area, and am committed to lifelong learning and improvement of my own—come with me on that journey.”

And now that I’m done with teaching for a few weeks, armed with the mandatory awareness that comes with teaching interpersonal skills for eight months straight, I’m really looking forward to watering my own relationship garden for a while.


Polly Chester

Polly is a thinker, writer, and social worker with passions for human rights, caring for the environment, social justice, social policy, epistemology, philosophy, and psychology.

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