Listen to understand

Lex Fridman’s epic podcast with Rick Rubin includes some great words on listening to understand. When another soul speaks to you, listen with compassion and empathy, listen to understand.

“My goal is not to form an opinion. It’s to understand.”

Why do these words about how to listen sound so refreshing and resonate so profoundly, right now? To listen – truly to listen – appears to be almost a lost art in our frenetic and chaotic present. Yet it is an art that is available and accessible to each of us, right now.

These words on listening are spoken by music producer Rick Rubin to Lex Fridman during his wonderful, epic April 2022 interview on the latter’s podcast.

In this conversation, Rubin and Fridman go deep on music and the feelings that music unlocks in and draws out of us. Rubin provides fascinating insights into how he has drawn often starkly emotional music from a dizzying array of musical greats over a near four-decade career. For Rubin, listening is key.

Listening is key for all of us, whether or not we recognise this truth, and whether or not we are good listeners ourselves.

To listen


To listen, perchance to learn. If you are blessed with a functional ear or ears, then listening should be the easiest thing in the world. Yet learning to listen well can prove surprisingly challenging. If you are lucky enough to have it, your hearing is a sense that is always active. Hearing can snap you out of deepest sleep into instant alert at an unexpected sound. To listen – and moreso to listen well – is a skill that needs to be honed.

Most people you meet would like nothing more than to get what is bothering them off their chest, and will be only too delighted to have the opportunity so to do. Good listening can make so much difference. All the more delightful for those doing the unburdening is that rare feeling that they are being listened to, that their words are landing, that the listener truly understands.

To listen well is not as easy as just allowing the other person to say their piece. There is so much more that a good listener brings to the conversation, and so much value that a good listener can gain from it.

Rubin tells Fridman how he approaches listening to the musicians with whom he works and to the musical ideas they bring:

“Coming in blank. Not having any preconceived ideas. Being open and really listening. Listening and not thinking about what you’re going to say next or what your opinion is. Basically being a recorder. Just hearing what comes in. Then, processing that information and trying your best to do that without any of the beliefs that we might have to impact what that is.”



Listening with an intent to understand is often in gravely short supply in our world today.

In an April 2022 article for The Atlantic entitled Why the past 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid, Jonathan Haidt surveys what he sees as the chaotic clammer of voices screaming over one another in American public and political life over the past decade or so. He draws a biblical parallel:

“The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.”

For Haidt, this modern Babel – big on loud voices, short on listening to or wanting to understand the perspective of others – was at least in part enabled by the rise of social media, and its tendency to promote confirmation bias. But things do not have to be this way, he argues. Listening to a diversity of voices and opinions can make all the difference:

“The most reliable cure for confirmation bias is interaction with people who don’t share your beliefs. They confront you with counterevidence and counterargument. John Stuart Mill said, ‘He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that,’ and he urged us to seek out conflicting views ‘from persons who actually believe them.'”

Haidt concludes his piece by reaffirming the critical importance of listening – of truly listening – to the voice of others, and of doing so with a constructive and positive intent:

“What would it be like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? We know. It is a time of confusion and loss. But it is also a time to reflect, listen, and build.”

I think this is why Rubin’s clear and direct words about how he approaches listening feel so welcome and so refreshing, right now. As Rubin explains to Fridman, he listens always with a clear objective in mind:

“For me, my goal is not to form an opinion. It’s to understand. So, if anything, I would draw you out further. Just ask questions, to really understand. If you say something that really triggers me, I wouldn’t challenge you, I would say ‘how do you get to that place?’ I want to understand who the person is, and through questioning we can usually get there.”

Listen with an intent to understand


Listening is a skill that cannot be perfected. Even good listeners know deep down that they can do it still better. But we can each of us take a step towards becoming a better listener, right now.

Gentle reader: Listen to what is going on around you today. Listen not just to what those you encounter you are saying to you, but try also to tune in to what they are really trying to say. If you encounter silence, listen intently to that silence. Even silence can have a message for you. And when another soul speaks to you, listen with compassion and empathy.

Listen with an intent to understand.

Listen to understand.


May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.


Three great Rick Rubin productions:

Jonathan Haidt is the co-author (along with Greg Lukianoff) of The Coddling of the American Mind and the author of The Righteous Mind.


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