There was time where I would gladly smile at someone, nod my head and pretend to listen them. I admit, I was one of those people in a business meeting who had The Girl of Ipanema playing in their head smiling while someone else was talking.
I was also the person who would listen to someone just long enough to prepare my own thoughts and next statement about me. Always thinking about myself no matter what the person was saying. I was a pretty poor listener.
I am going to step out on a limb here and suggest that many of you are in the same boat. Often times, you listen just long enough to the other person to interject your ideas.
So what’s wrong with listening only at this level?
There is nothing wrong if you are only listening to gather information, like asking for directions. However, listening in this fashion is not conducive to creating and managing effective relationships in business or at home. In relationships, you want to listen actively to gain understanding, to inform decisions, to build partnerships, to make solid agreements and to negotiate. If you are listening only with your next thought in mind, you miss out on building mutually beneficial outcomes for both parties.
It took me becoming a leadership coach to fully understand the art and practice of active listening, particularly in the context of listening to others, building relationships and achieving outcomes.
You don’t need to be come a leadership coach to become a good listener and foster healthier relationships.
All you have to do is learn the difference between listening and hearing and know that there are different levels of active listening. Knowing the distinctions of active listening gives you powerful information to help you develop your listening skills.
The Oxford Dictionary defines hearing as the faculty of perceiving sounds and listening to give attention to a sound. Paying attention is the key difference.
Listening is paying attention while hearing is the physical ability.
Easy enough right, just listen…or pay attention to the sounds, in the case of relationships (words). How close you pay attention and how you interpret the data (words) are key in developing excellent active listening skills and to communicate more effectively.
The Three Levels of Active Listening explain how we much attention we pay to the other person and how we use the data from the conversation.
- Level I – Internal Listening. We hear the words of the other person, but the focus is on what it means to us.
- Level II – Focused Listening. The attention is focused on the other person.
- Level III – Global Listening. Listening for words and other sensory data a well as mood, pace and energy.
I borrowed these concepts from Co-Active Coaching by Whitworth, Kimsey-House and Sandahl, one of the cornerstone books on coaching. If you want to dive deeper in this topic and into coaching I highly recommend reading this book.
Let’s take a closer look into each type of active listening.
Level I is called internal listening because we are focused solely on ourselves. The purpose of listening at this level is to gather information and meet our own needs. We aren’t really listening to the other person’s needs. We are focused entirely on our own thoughts and opinions. This type of listening is great for gathering data, but not so much if you want to have real meaningful conversations.
Level II is focused listening because there is a sharp focus on the other person. The attention and impact of the listening is not on you but on the other person. You listen for their words and emotions. You deepen what you know about the other person by staying curious and asking clarifying questions. The whole intent is listening to understand the other person. This is a much better method for creating deeper conversations and relationships. You can easily move to Level II by quieting your mind and paying close attention to the other person.
Level III is global listening where you are focused on the person, but not on just their words. You are listening and observing everything you can take in; what you see, hear, smell and feel. You are listening for their energy and emotions spoken and unspoken. You are listening to their body language and letting it inform you. Basically listening to the entire environment of the person and the conversation in addition to their spoken word. This type of listening requires an absolute quiet mind and body and an openness to take in everything around you. How you interpret this data and relate back to your conversation gives added richness to its meaning and depth.
Benefits of active listening at levels II & III
- Develop deeper more meaningful business and personal relationships because you are fully listening to the other person, not just your thoughts.
- Help avoid misinformation, poor agreements and conflict at the office and at home, because you listen to gain true understanding.
- Support emotional intelligence, because listening to others is key to empathize with others.
- Improve productivity, because listening really well the first time avoids having to go back and ask questions later.
- Less stress, because you are not having as much conflict and misunderstandings.
Practice active listening
- Pay attention to how you listen. Track your listening habits for a day and see if there were opportunities to use Levels II and III. At what level were you listening? Did it help your conversations or hinder them?
- Practice Level II listening. Put your own thoughts and opinions to the side and focus on the other person. Reflect back what you hear and ask clarifying questions.
- Practice Level II listening. Find someone you are close with and see if you can hear beyond the words. Try and pick up on the body language, emotions and other senses.
We all know why we listen. We listen to gather information. We listen to gain understanding. We listen to take action. We listen to build relationships. The benefits of active listening are obvious. So what are you waiting for? Go out and start listening.
 Laura Whitworth, Henry Kimsey-House, and Phil Sandahl: Co-Active Coaching (Mountain View: Davies-Black Publishing, 1998), p.9