Can You Listen Between the Lines?

John R. Stoker is the author of  “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of Dialogue WORKS, Inc.  His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, and AbbVie. Connect with him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter. 

Years ago, one of our employees scheduled an appointment to speak with me. She came in and told me of her desire to take maternity leave. A few hours later, my assistant asked me if I was going to give the same person a raise. “What are you talking about?” I asked. She told me that my employee had told her that she had scheduled the appointment to talk about being given a raise. I responded, “She never said anything about a raise.” “What was the first thing she asked you when she started the conversation?” she queried. “She started by asking me, ‘Have you been satisfied with my work this last year?’ To which I responded, ‘You have done a fantastic job the last two years!’” My assistant then said, “There you have it. That was the request for the raise. You don’t listen between the lines very well.” I called the employee back to my office to explore the topic of a raise. She did indeed intend to ask for a raise.

Part of the problem with not being able to listen between the lines arises from our perception of what the person is saying or what they want. People tend to make assumptions based on their own experiences, current emotions, and state of mind. Unfortunately, these assumptions often tend to be incorrect. Recognizing the inaccuracy of our assumptions and challenging them by asking questions will greatly clarify what we are hearing and help to avoid misunderstandings.

Before I offer some questions for consideration, remember that each individual makes selective observations that lead to their interpretations. Unfortunately we don’t know what a person sees or hears and how that leads to their thinking. The only representations of their thinking that we experience are the feelings they display, the words they use, and the actions they take. It’s important to admit that unless we ask them about their feelings, words, and actions, we can only guess what they are really thinking.

People tend to make assumptions based on their own experiences, current emotions, and state of mind.


Here are four questions that will help you avoid misperceptions in your interactions with others:

  1. What is the message in a person’s emotions? We are generally not as concerned about misunderstanding positive emotions that are being displayed. It is the negative or unclear emotion that a person displays that often leaves us scratching our heads. I like to say that negative emotion is the mask of meaning. In other words, a negative emotional reaction tells you that there is a negative thought behind that negative emotion. Negative emotions signal that the person is experiencing a perceived violated value–something that is important to them. Their negative interpretation leads them to react defensively.     

What can you do? One thing you can do to determine what’s really happening is by acknowledging their emotion and then asking them about it. It might sound something like, “I noticed you are upset. What’s up?” Or, I noticed you’re upset. Is it about something that I said or did?” Notice that you are acknowledging their emotions and guessing at the reason behind them. If they choose to respond to your question, you will learn what they are thinking.

  1. What is the message in the words they are using? Two ideas need to be considered when listening to the words that people use. First, you should listen for the use of highly charged words. For example, if someone said, “I hate having to get over this every week.” The word “hate” is a very strong word that conjures up animosity or rejection of something. In addition to their word choice, listen to the inflection or emphasis that a person gives to their words. Let’s say that in the previous example, the person really emphasized the words “get over this.” “I hate having to get over this every week.” When I hear that kind of emphasis, I ask questions to understand why they accented those words.

What can you do? So to follow the quoted statement made above, I might ask, “I heard you really emphasize ‘get over’ in your last sentence. What is there to ‘get over?’ Or, “I heard you emphasize ‘this’ just now. What is ‘this’ that you have to get over? Acknowledge their use of words, and then ask what the use of those words means to them. Know that you must be patient and allow them the freedom to tell you what is really on their mind.

  1. What is the message in the tone that a person is using? Because tone is the music of the mind, you know that the tone represents the emotional energy that a person has about an issue. Usually, it is through the tone of a message that a person’s emotion is displayed. Pay close attention to the tone of the message to gain some sense of what a person may be thinking. Because we do not hear ourselves the way others hear us, becoming more sensitive to our tone and the tone of others can be helpful in gaining clues to what others are thinking.

What can you do? Reflect their tone and ask for meaning. For example, you might say, “You sounded a bit sarcastic in what you just said. What do you really mean by that?” You could also mention the tone and quote the exact words that a person used, but be sure to ask for the meaning of the tone.

Once after I wrote a piece online on sarcasm, a person shared in the comments that he used sarcasm to tell a person that they were stupid in what they were saying. I wrote him back and told him if they were really that stupid, then they would probably misinterpret the meaning of his message. He disagreed, but I would strongly suggest that assuming that a person will understand your message solely based upon the tone you use increases the chance of being misunderstood.  Additionally, some people take people’s words at face value, regardless of tone, and sarcasm is completely lost on them.

  1. What message do a person’s actions send? People convey a lot of what they are thinking and feeling through their nonverbal behavior. Watch to see what they do with their eyes. Do they roll their eyes? Do they avoid eye contact altogether? Watch to see what a person does with their hands as they gesture. Are their hands open with the palms up? Do they make an “offering” gesture with their hands? Or do they use pounding fists to make a point? Are their hands used in cutting, jabbing, or sweeping away motions? How is their posture? Are they upright and facing you, or turned to the side and slumping? Do they step into your personal space, or stay a distance away from you? Watching for these and other nonverbal signals will help provide you additional information about what someone is communicating.

What can you do? Share your observations of their actions and ask what they mean. For example, you might say, “I noticed you rolled your eyes as I shared my idea. Do you disagree with what I offered? Please, share your perspective.” Notice you are not going to react to whatever action that they are taking, but rather you are interested in what they are thinking. That is the reason that you are seeking meaning in the first place: you are interested in learning and understanding for the sake of the relationship and to increase good results.

There can be an additional challenge in trying to listen between the lines when the people we are trying to understand are not able to answer our clarifying questions. They may not be able to articulate what they are feeling. When that happens, be willing to allow the person time to think through and process what is going on with them, so that they can come to the awareness of why they are displaying a certain behavior. Be patient and allow them time to think through your question and then invite them to share their findings when they are ready.

If you work at understanding the messages that are between the lines, you will gain increased clarity and certainty about what really is being communicated. This will improve your relationship with the person and help you achieve more effective results.

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