3 Essential Ideas

  • The greatest single need for people is to be understood.
  • The root cause of our misunderstanding is shallow listening and shallow conversation. The most Essential things are never discussed at this level of communication.  
  • Listening to understand means that we are listening to reduce the suffering of others.

1 Essential Action 

  • Identify when your green zone is. Tomorrow, schedule what’s most important during your green zone time. 

1 Question I Have Been Asked This Week

  • How do I balance all of my responsibilities and still have time for my loved ones?

1 Parting Piece of Advice

  • Debate like you’re right and listen like you’re wrong.

Key Moments From The Show 

  • The greatest single need people have (2:53)
  • The Argument and The Breakthrough (5:31)
  • Shallow listening vs deep listening (11:52)
  • The importance to first observe, then serve(15:20)
  • What you can do right now to increase the level of understanding in your relationships (16:03)
  • How to test to see if you are listening to understand (17:44)
  • One book Greg has been reading (20:33)
  • One question Greg has been asked this week (23:26)
  • One piece of advice from Greg (26:08)

Links You’ll Love From the Episode

Loving Speech & Deep Listening | Thich Nhat Hanh – YouTube video

On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers

Connect with Greg McKeown

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Greg McKeown

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the What’s Essential Podcast. I’m Greg McKeown and I’ll be your host. I’m also the author of the New York Times bestselling books Essentialism and Effortless. I want you to come with me on an exploration of self-discovery. On this podcast, we decipher what really matters and unravel the non-essential chaos that gets in the way of us being able to build an essential life.

Today is the first ever episode on this podcast where I’m just going to get the chance to talk directly with you. I’ve been feeling to do this for some time, but there’s a subject that’s so important to me. It has, I think, the power of relevancy, of urgency for almost everybody listening to this today, if not everybody, and it’s really the subject of misunderstanding. And that subject is the absolute awfulness of being misunderstood. What I want from you today is to really listen with an open mind, open heart, not just to what I share with you directly, but maybe with something inside of you that resonates and tells you something even different than the words I’m sharing that can help you get greater clarity in your own life, but also greater clarity with the people that matter most to you.

Let me ask you a question right now. I want you to think of a time when you have felt misunderstood. In fact, I want you to think of a single word to describe that experience. Recently, I went on social media and I put that question out to everybody and I was surprised by the answers I received, especially by the pure depth of the responses. Listen to these words: betrayed, unjust, isolating, gut wrenching, embarrassing. Somebody said, “Where poison creeps in.” Another gutted, fearful, disheartening, suffocating, terrifying, outcast, unworthy, unvalued, unsafe, triggered, hurt, depressed, debilitated, stupid.

I think it would be hard to come up with any words more serious than those. And so it puts into context something that I have learned through, let’s say 20 years of thinking on this subject, and it’s this, that being understood is the greatest single need for people, to be known, to be accepted, to be understood. I mean, the problem is for a whole variety of reasons, we are not at all good at this.

One reason is because generally people think they are above average listeners, and that cannot of course be true, but in a sense it’s true because lots of people are good at what I would describe as bad listening. People are good at nodding and pretending they’re paying attention. They’re good at listening to the surface level. But none of that equals really being understood. And in fact it shouldn’t surprise us at all because of all of the educational experiences we’ve had. Think of your formal education and of how many hours, days, years even you’ve had informal training in how to write, or in how to read, even how to speak. But how much time have you spent formally being taught how to listen?

For most people, literally they haven’t spent one hour being taught how to listen and especially to listen in a way that somebody else feels understood, which is a different kind of objective, a different kind of skill level. So if you put these two realities together, the great need is to be understood, but there’s this absence of competence in being able to do that for each other, then we have a problem. And that problem shows up not just in one word answers in social media to a question I put out there, but in all of the stories behind each of those one word answers, stories of suffering, and then being misunderstood in the midst of that suffering, and how lonely that can feel.

To illustrate this and to again express why this is so on my mind, I’ve got to share two experiences in my own family recently. For many years we have taught our children how to listen. In fact, not just how to listen generally, but the skill of empathic restating, to be able to express to somebody what they are feeling to their own satisfaction before you make your point. So over those years of introducing it, training it, we’ve had a range of successes.

Recently, we reintroduced it and we said, “Okay, you only get to speak if you are holding the pen. And the only way you get to get the pen is if you have restated to that person’s satisfaction what they have said.” And an emotional subject came up in one of our family counsels, our conversations together, I had perhaps an hour and a half before an important scheduled event that I was doing. And so there was enough time I thought to be able to begin this conversation. But I was probably more impatient than I realized at the time.

So we begin the process and I am chief facilitator of this conversation. And I think that I’m managing it okay, but it gets more and more emotional and more and more frustrating for everybody involved until towards the end, as I’m feeling torn to get to this preexisting commitment, I basically lose it. And it was the poor crescendo of a relatively poor experience. I now just call this when we are referring to it in shorthand, the argument. The only thing I can say in positivity about that experience was that within about 20 minutes, everything was back to normal. Everything had returned to its original shape.

So the culture of the family demonstrated some resiliency. I apologized to every person saying, “Look, of course I should have handled that better. Please forgive me.” And everything just seemed to be okay. Go forward a few days and we’ve just eaten dinner as a family. It’s a Sunday evening and another subject comes up that’s sensitive between two people. We reintroduced the rule. I think this time we used a fork instead of a pen. You could only speak if you’re holding the fork. And the only way you get to hold the fork is if you have expressed to somebody, to their satisfaction, the meaning of what they have just shared with you, the emotion behind what they’re trying to express to you.

And I kept to the same rule myself. So it meant that my role as facilitator was very minimal. Perhaps because of that, the whole thing went so much better. In fact, I got to watch through what was perhaps two or even three hours of high-skilled, to me impressive, restating back and forth between a group of teenagers. It included going layer after layer deeper and deeper. And as we went deeper, we got closer to what was really going on, how people really felt. There were tears involved. There was laughter involved. There was richness for sure. And there was, amid the layers of misunderstanding, also real understanding, mutual understanding on highly sensitive jugular issues.

As a summary, I think of this as the breakthrough, the argument and the breakthrough. And they capture a contrast, as I’ve said, I feel has the power of relevancy right now. Sometimes I’ll watch talking heads on some cable channel. One time, literally five people all actually speaking, animatedly even yelling at each other, at exactly the same time. What possibility of understanding is there in such an interaction? Of course there’s not understanding there’s just perpetual misunderstanding however emotional it becomes, however much contention bleeds into the conversation.

Or think of meetings where there’s misunderstanding. Somebody says something, somebody else disagrees, you end up losing the plot of the conversation, the narrative, because it becomes who is right. Or think of meetings that you’ve been at on teams. Perhaps it’s a team where everyone tries to outdo each other, one up each other, on any discussion as it turns into an unhelpful debate. And it really looks like it’s all about trying to prove you are right rather than getting it right.

Or there’s another dynamic I’ve observed perhaps even more often than the first where I walk into a team and nobody’s talking, and you can feel the private agendas under the surface, and a sense that the real meeting is going to take place after the meeting is passed. And so people don’t feel that they can speak up and share what they really believe, what they think, what they want. Both are part of the same root problem. In both instances, it’s people not being able to be mutually understood. And how many other problems blossom because of that single root cause?

And let’s just talk about the kinds of problems that can exist, do exist, when people stop being able to really understand each other. Let’s imagine that all communication, it’s something like the layers of the earth, that there are these multiple layers and at the core is a red hot center of something really essential, really important. But in most of our interactions with each other, for the reasons we’ve discussed and maybe other reasons too, you stay at the surface, it’s surface, shallow listening, shallow conversation.

The problem is that when you stay at that level of communication, the most essential things aren’t even being discussed. And the risk is that well-intended, driven, capable. People start to address completely the wrong issue so that you can spend enormous amounts of effort, energy, resources, and you are dealing with a peripheral thing, a smoke screen, just the surface of the world. Only with skillful listening, deep listening with great understanding, can you start to go layer by layer, closer and closer to what is more interesting, more valuable, the essential core of any interaction and conversation that you’re having. What a benefit that is to any team who can figure out how to do that.

I was talking to a senior executive at Apple who said, “I’ve worked with lots of companies and even within their engineering groups, it’s amazing how often people deal with the wrong issues, don’t ask the right questions or listen in the right way to get to the heart of the matter.” He said, “At Apple, they’re significantly better at that.” But he said he had once worked with someone who was better even than the average engineer at Apple at cutting right through the clutter to the heart of the issue. My, that’s the skill. That’s the skill our times. That’s the thing we need to be able to do.

Think of the difference it makes maybe not just even in a team in work, but in a family or in a marriage, if you can start addressing the right issues. I mean, have you ever received a gift from someone perhaps it was even expensive and it just was not a gift you actually wanted. What’s the feeling of that moment? I mean, you want to be grateful and you feel guilty for not being grateful, but the feeling you’re having isn’t close to gratitude. It’s almost a sick feeling because I think what you feel in that moment is completely misunderstood. This is not who I am. This is not what I want. And yet I now have to put on the facade that this is what I want.

But the same is true on the other side. Have you ever given a gift and maybe you spent a lot of money on it? Or you certainly wanted a certain kind of deposit to be made to the other person to let them know that you appreciate them, that you’re thankful for them, but that perhaps what you gave is not what they want. It’s not what they need. So this ability as it was once put in a talk I listened to, to first observe and then serve, that order, that skillset, to be able to observe correctly, to understand correctly, to listen deeply, to get to the real issue, is hugely important at the relationship level as well.

In in fact, it’s a disproportionately powerful skill if you have it, if you can develop it, then it allows you to make relatively modest investments and have a disproportionately great outcome because you are going to actually give the thing that somebody really needs. Let me suggest a couple of things that you can do right now to try and immediately increase the level of understanding between you and other people in your life. The first is the importance in advocating for yourself, of risking offending someone in order to get it right.

Now that might sound counterintuitive given the conversation we’ve had, but this is a dual dynamic. And my observation is that there’s at least two sides to the problem. One is not listening deeply to each other, but the other is not speaking deeply, not admitting, “I feel this. I want that.” And if we’re not good at doing that, it means that we are putting all of the burden on the person to somehow figure it out, discern it, anticipate it, guess what it is. I wouldn’t recommend that you make that bet. To be willing, courageous really, in speaking up, in being real, in being who we are and to not pretend that we are someone we are not, to not put on an image that isn’t true.

The second thing is just this importance of listening to understand. The test of this is immense. When as is almost inevitably the case, somebody says something to us while we are listening to them, while we are restating, while we’re letting them open up, that seems to us wrong. Maybe the person shares something that is accusatory. Maybe it’s angry, frustrated. Maybe it’s focused on us and what we’ve done wrong. Maybe the perspectives are not accurate. That’s the test. Can we in that moment listen compassionately to the suffering of somebody else?

I was listening to a really touching video recently, I’ll put a link in the show notes, of a Tibetan monk describing this kind of listening. If you can listen with the singular intent to reduce the suffering in the other, then that will give you the strength not to react, not to interrupt, not to correct the record. It went on to say there is a time for that. You can hold onto that and share it maybe in a few days afterwards. It’s not that your perspective is not important. It’s not that you must capitulate your own story to theirs, but you don’t share it yet.

The singular focus, how can I reduce the suffering in the other? And in that question is an assumption that feels so close to the reality that I’ve experienced in the last 20 years as I have been on this adventure to understand deep empathy and deep listening, and to fail it at many times, and to keep trying to develop new competence and understanding. I’ve come to discover that suffering really is so close to being universal, you might as well just call it that. And that if you don’t know about the suffering in the other, it’s just because you’re at the surface of their world.

As you show greater restraint yourself in holding back, more and more will come forward in them and you will gain many advantages in the process. One, an actual understanding of where they’re coming from, but also, you will produce healing in the other. If you can be one of the people in their life who can actually meet that need, healing comes forward.

I planned at the end of this episode to share one book that I’ve been reading, one question that I’ve been asked this week, and maybe one parting word of advice. The book is by Carl Rogers. He’s a psychologist, not well known I would say today, but his impact in particularly American psychology over the last 50 years is difficult to overstate. Prior to Carl Rogers, the dominant paradigm of psychotherapy was Freudian, and that was most typified with quite an aggressive interaction between therapist and patient, as if the purpose of the interaction was to challenge and to almost rip out of the patient a confession to one of the foundational ideas in the Freudian notions.

Carl Rogers, instead of trusting implicitly the Freudian tradition, trusted and said his own experience working with patient after patient. And what grew out of that tremendous experience and personal observation was an understanding of understanding, the discovery that if he as a psychotherapist turned up as a real person in the conversation and would admit to how he saw things and how he felt as a therapist, to be real, it brought forward permission and space for the patient to be real and to then open up more. And he found really one could say, at least in the modern era, he’s the father of empathic restating.

He was certainly the person who most is responsible for having introduced it into the modern therapeutic processes. And he found that as he created space for someone to be heard and to go layer after layer, they would discover themselves things that weren’t obvious to them, that they would be able to name something hidden even from themselves. And when you get to the very core of it, it might be something quite simple. It might even be quite easy to fix. And so again, you see this advantage, this disproportionate benefit. So the book that I would suggest beginning with is On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers.

The question I was asked this week comes from David Drake. He writes, “I am a professor of microbiology and infectious diseases. I have multiple collegiate university and national responsibilities. Trying to focus on my research and my research group is more difficult due to so much administrative work. How do I balance these and still have time for my loved ones?” I mean, first of all, I love that question from David. What I think you are saying is something quite considerable pain attached to it. On the surface, it sounds like a busyness question. But if you go a little deeper, it really goes to the heart of the most important relationships of your life and the tendency, not just once or twice, but over a long period of time, of not being able to keep everybody happy. There’s risk of you being misunderstood. There’s risk of your loved ones feeling misunderstood, of course of your colleagues as well.

What I sense in your question is a genuinely deep desire to do something about these relationships that have become more strained than you would like them to be. The challenge with work commitments in general is that if you don’t create boundaries, there won’t be any. And this is why for so many of us as the pandemic hit, we didn’t just have to work from home, the sensation was as we’ve heard, more like living at work. That as the final boundaries came down, it flowed one way mostly.

And so the goal is to create enough boundaries that work must fit of necessity within the time that has been allotted to it. Then from there, even the very conversation we’ve had today could be useful, to be able to advocate for what you want, but also to listen so that you can fully understand from your colleagues, from your students, from the people you’re collaborating with what really is essential to them and what isn’t, so that you can become far more efficient at delivering value than perhaps you’ve been in the past.

And now to the question of one parting word of advice. A colleague of mine likes to say he’s debating like he’s right and listening like he’s wrong. And I think that’s a good way to put this, to courageously share what you want, what you think, but also to courageously listen to what others think, to what others want, so that we can get layer by layer, closer to what really matters, to what’s essential.

Ladies and gentlemen, essentialists one and all, we’ve come to that moment again, the end of the show. And I just want to say thank you, really thank you for listening, for making this show into something special. You’ve been with us on the journey from when we began to now a year later, the podcast in the top five self improvements on Apple iTunes and everything ahead of us. That momentum is due to you and really, thank you for being involved and don’t stop there. If you found this conversation helpful today, share it with somebody who may themselves be struggling with being misunderstood. Take a moment and write a review on Apple iTunes. You cannot believe how important and helpful that is in securing the right guests, the right people, to be able to continually help you invest in you in figuring out what’s essential.

Greg McKeown


  • Hosted by Greg McKeown
  • Produced by Greg McKeown Team
  • Executive Produced by Greg McKeown