Listen Your Way to the Top

February 25, 2013

In recent years, we’ve seen a new emphasis on the art of listening. It can’t be because listening is all of a sudden more important than it ever was before. Maybe the nature of work in the information age means the the cost of misunderstanding is higher. Or maybe our experts and trainers have been burned by poor listening and decided to produce more thought leadership on the topic.

At any rate, many studies demonstrate the importance of listening. We are apparently able to listen about 3 times faster than we can speak, but we also forget most of what we’ve heard. Listening been identified as one of the top qualities employers seek. And the ability to listen well has been tied to the ability to lead.

Listening Kid

Everyone wants to be hired, to lead well, and to experience true understanding in the communication they engage in. So how can we learn to listen more effectively? There are many solutions for growth, but one of the first may be to understand the various levels of listening that exist. Here are five of the most common ones:

Passive Listening

Passive listening occurs during virtually all of our waking moments. In passive listening, there is no difference between communication we are receiving and the white noise within hearing: traffic, hustle and bustle on the street, background music, the sound of nature, etc. The reason we listen passively is often that we are speaking, concentrating, or listening to something else. No communication with any of these passive elements occurs unless we stop to give our full attention.

Selective Listening

Selective listening occurs when we tune in and out of our present circumstances or conversations. If you are in the car waiting for the traffic report on the radio, you likely let your attention span wander until the report comes on. We often do this with people as well. Picture yourself at a dinner party. When the conversation either holds no interest for you or is not in your area of expertise or knowledge, you drift. But when it comes around to a topic where you have an opinion, you are much more likely to stay engaged. This can often occur in one-on-one conversations as well. If you’ve ever tried to talk with someone who was looking at their cell phone at the same time, you were likely the recipient of selective listening.

Self-Focused Listening

Self-focused listening listens for meaning, but only as it applies to one’s self. If you have been in a work meeting where new upcoming changes were being communicated for the first time, it’s likely you were applying self-focused listening. You considered what the implications meant for you and whether they were positive or negative. If you see a news clip talking about changes to the tax codes, you probably apply self-focused listening. The same thing often happens in one-on-one conversations. Suppose you have a friend who tells you about his recent heart attack. If your reaction is to start figuring out if you have the same symptoms, you are engaged in self-focused listening.

Solution-Focused Listening

Solution-focused listening can require immense amounts of skill but also be the most irritating of all the levels. It occurs whenever we simultaneously listen and begin to form our response to what is being communicated. In that sense, we quickly translate the input (what we hear) into new output (what we say). It requires a high level of engagement. Solution-focused listening is a must for situations where it’s important to think on your feet, such as public debates. But it can create a lot of misunderstanding or disillusionment in more intimate conversations. When a communicator is not seeking a solution, offering one can be very abrasive, especially since it is likely to be inaccurate, (based on limited understanding), inadequate (the listener doesn’t have the same circumstances or resources), or inappropriate (the communicator isn’t seeking a solution at all).

Active Listening

Active listening is the highest level. It is listening for the purpose of determining what the communication really means. Stephen Covey calls this “empathetic listening.” Other experts refer to it as “intuitive listening.” Since the listener “turns off” the voice in their head that is crafting a response, all of the focus is on the communicator. Folks who listen actively don’t assume they have the complete picture once the other person stops talking. They repeat back or ask if their understanding is accurate. Then their curiosity allows them to probe deeper in order to understand more fully. The result is that once understanding truly occurs, future communication and solutions are likely to be much more effective.

There they are; five levels of listening. Some come naturally. Others require lots of discipline. And if you want to grow your influence, active listening is far and away the most effective option.

Why is listening so difficult? Who do you know that listens really well?

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.