The Three-Legged Stool of Communication: If Any Leg is Missing, It Collapses

Abang Edwin SA
3 min readMay 16, 2024
Photo by Akson on Unsplash

Experts agree that healthy communication rests on three core abilities: listening, understanding, and responding. Ignoring any of these pillars can severely undermine interactions and prevent successful exchange of information and perspectives.

Listening: The Forgotten Art

In our always-connected world of constant distractions and stimulation, many struggle to truly listen. As legendary communication expert Stephen Covey stated, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Active listening involves giving your undivided attention and clearing your mind to absorb all that the speaker is conveying — their words, tone, body language and context. Neglecting this critical first step leads to misunderstandings, missed nuance and the other party feeling disrespected or unheard.

For example, if a romantic partner tries expressing their feelings about conflicts in the relationship, but you’re distracted by your phone or formulating your next point in your head, you’ll likely miss or misinterpret important parts of their message.

Understanding: The Bridge to Effective Exchange

Listening is vital, but ultimately hollow if comprehension doesn’t follow. As the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”

Understanding goes beyond simply hearing the words spoken — it’s about interpreting the full meaning, context and perspective behind them. This requires separating your own biases, making an earnest attempt to see from their point of view, and analyzing implications and subtext.

Consider a workplace scenario where an employee proposes a new project idea to their manager. If the manager fails to truly understand the rationale, objectives and potential challenges/benefits, their response is likely to be misaligned or derail productive discussion.

Responding: Closing the Communication Loop

The Harvard Business Review cites “responding in a timely and direct manner” as a core communication competency. After listening and understanding, you must formulate and convey a relevant, insightful response to continue the constructive dialogue.

Failing to respond with substance and emotional intelligence can negate all the listening and understanding efforts, leaving the other party feeling unvalued. As writer Kenneth G. Johnson has said, “When we fail to respond to the needs of others, we not only neglect our moral obligation to our fellow human beings, but we miss opportunities to grow as individuals.”

For instance, in a conversational disagreement between friends about politics or social issues, if one party has clearly listened and understands the other’s perspective but can’t convey a thoughtful counterpoint, tensions are likely to escalate rather than resolving through productive discourse.

The three pillars of listening, understanding and responding reinforce one another in an iterative cycle of mutual exchange, learning and relationship building. Proficiency in each is required to facilitate effective communication across personal and professional contexts. Strengthening these skills can help resolve conflicts, improve teamwork, solidify personal connections and drive better coordinated efforts.


  • Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Free Press.
  • Epictetus. The Golden Sayings of Epictetus.
  • Communication Competence. (n.d.). Harvard Business Review.
  • Johnson, K.G. (2012). The Failure to Respond. Psychology Today.
  • Malandro, L.A., Barker, L., & Kushner, R.J. (1983). Perspectives in Nonverbal Communication. Macmillan.

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Abang Edwin SA

Observer, Content Creator, Blogger (Obviously), Ghostwriter, Design Thinker, Trainer and also Lecturer for Product Design Dept at Podomoro University