Updated: Dec 31, 2020
As an avid runner, I enjoy listening to podcasts and music while jogging along the river or through one of the fantastic parks that we are lucky to live near. The scariest things to have happened to me while running was when two overly enthusiastic dogs got tangled between my legs and tripped me. I was oblivious to the dogs because I was dulling an essential sense at the time by wearing earphones and listening to a podcast or perhaps it was music and not taking any notice of the sound of the environment around me. Fortunately, other than a few scrapes and bruises (mostly to my ego) no damage was done. The dogs, after sniffing and licking me, merrily carried on their way. I committed to finding a safer way to enjoy running and listening/learning at the same time and hence researched and bought a pair of bone conduction headphones that work by transmitting the sound through the cheekbones to the inner ear, bypassing the eardrums. With nothing blocking the ears, maximum situational awareness is maintained.
This incident reminded me just how important our hearing is and our ability to listen effectively. By wearing my old earphones and shutting off the outside world, dulling my sense of hearing, I had limited myself to level 1 listening. We listen at three levels:
Level 1 – Internal Listening
Level 2 – Focused Listening
Level 3 – Environmental Listening
In level 1 listening, the focus in on you, not the person speaking or your environment. Your focus is on what does it mean to you personally. How does what you are being told impact your agenda. My running analogy firmly places me at level 1, and in my experience, this is where most listening in business today sits. How does it impact me, the listener, and how should I respond?
With level 2 listening, your complete focus is on the person speaking. What are they saying, how are they saying it, what are they not saying, and what are the non-verbal cues all comes into play. You are no longer trying to figure out your next move and response. Instead, you are giving your complete focus to the person speaking so you can maximise your understanding.
Level 3 listening adds to level 2. Not only is your complete focus on the speaker, but you can spot the impact their words and presence are having on the room and audience - the change in energy levels. Did the audience respond well or not to a phrase or choice of words. Live performers have highly developed level 3 listening skills as the successful ones must adapt, think on their feet and quickly read a room.
In a typical business setting today, we are conditioned to “listen to respond” which is level 1. People who speak up, often interrupting others, repeating what others have said or use “…yes, but…” have been rewarded. They are considered to be impactful and proactive. The fact that they never correctly heard and therefore understood what was said was a lower priority. We need to break the habit of listening to respond where the focus is on ourselves, our agenda and what our next move should be, as we need more “listening to understand” which fits firmly with level 2 and 3 listening.
Level 2 and 3 listening requires your focus and attention, it requires effort, and unfortunately, we don’t get taught to listen effectively through on the job training. To break the bad habits, we first need to be self-aware and recognise that understanding is more important than responding. The realisation came to me while reading Nancy Kline’s “Time To Think” (1999) when I went “huh, that’s it, that is what has been going on!”
I now use active listening as a core element within my coaching and operate at level 2 and level 3. The coaching agenda is the clients. I focus exclusively on the client and not on how what they are saying impacts me.
A great talk that covers communication and listening is by Celeste Headlee (10 ways to have a better conversation).
I love how Celeste says
“…no one ever listened themselves out of a job.”
Listening is an underrated leadership skill. Ask challenging questions and be a good listener, and you will be surprised at the breadth of ideas and solutions that your teams generate when allowed to do so.
Write it on your hand as a reminder the next time you are in a meeting.
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