In recent years, we’ve seen a new emphasis placed 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 perhaps the experts have been burned by poor listening one too many times and decided to produce more thought leadership on the topic.
At any rate, study after study demonstrates the importance of listening to communication, leadership and influence. We are apparently able to listen about three 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. Leadership is impossible without communication and communication is impossible without listening.
Everyone wants to be hired, to lead well and to understood. So how can we learn to listen more effectively? The first step is to distinguish between the various listening levels that exist. Here are five of the most common ones:
Passive listening occurs during virtually all of our waking moments. In passive listening, there is no virtually difference between communication we are receiving and the white noise we hear: traffic, background music, the sound of nature, etc. We tend to tune all of it out together, especially if we are simultaneously speaking, concentrating or listening to something else simultaneously. No meaningful communication with any of these passive elements can take place unless we stop to give our full attention.
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 may 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 holds no interest for you, you drift. But when it comes around to a topic where you have an opinion, you are much more likely to stay engaged. If you’ve ever tried to answer an email while a co-working was speaking with you, you probably subjected them to selective listening – and probably annoyed them as well.
Self-focused listening pays close attention 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 announced 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 will probably apply self-focused listening. The same thing can happens in one-on-one conversations. Suppose you have a friend who recounts a recent heart attack. If your reaction is to consider whether you’ve had the same symptoms, you are engaged in self-focused listening.
Solution-focused listening tends to come the naturally to many of us, but can 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. We quickly translate the input (what we hear) into our own assessment (what we think) and then into new output (what we say). It requires a high level of engagement. Solution-focused listening is a must for situations when it’s critical to think on your feet, such as public debates or managing an active crisis. But it can create significant misunderstanding or disillusionment in less urgent conversations. A solution-focused response is likely to be inaccurate (since it’s based on limited understanding), inadequate (the listener hasn’t had the same experience), or inappropriate (the communicator may not be seeking a solution at all). It can bring a premature end to the communication as well since the communicator can either take the solution or leave it.
Active listening is the highest level. It is listening for the sole purpose of understanding. Stephen Covey calls this “empathetic listening.” Others refer to it as “intuitive listening.” Active listeners have the self discipline to resist forming a response and place all their focus on the communicator and the message. People 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. They may even ask follow-up questions in order to understand more fully. Once their understanding is confirmed, future communication and solution-finding are likely to be much more effective.
There you have it: five levels of listening. Some come naturally. Others require significant self-discipline. For leaders looking to grow their influence, active listening is a challenge worth accepting. It won’t be easy at first, you’ll have to stick with it. But the change will be swift and noticeable – especially by the people you engage with.
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.