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Back to Basics + Advanced Practice: Listening


We all know that listening is important. But few of us do it really well in our hectic workdays.

Let’s take a step back and take a look at this fundamental skill with fresh eyes (or ears, rather).

Bonus: If you want to improve your emotional intelligence without diving into feelings and such, listening is a top skill to deepen.

Listening is about awareness and impact*.

Awareness includes the information we receive from all available sources – conscious and subconscious.

  • 5 senses
  • intuition
  • energy and emotions we sense in others or feel in ourselves
  • everything in the external environment

Impact points to the effect of our listening on others, when we act on awareness. Again, some is conscious and some is subconscious.

Listening is about being hyperconscious and present while simultaneously accessing the subconscious.

Levels of Listening

Level 1 Listening

In Level 1 listening, our awareness is on ourselves.

  • Hear the words someone is saying but attention is on what it means to/for us
  • Your thoughts, your judgements, your feelings, your conclusions are right there waiting for your turn to speak
  • Strong desire for more information … you want answers, explanations, details, and data
  • Includes all the internal chatter in your mind … what’s for lunch, I need to check with marketing on [X], I like her scarf, etc.
  • Includes “polite” listening where you aren’t actually paying attention at all.

Level 1 informs us, and is very important. But we may or may not pay any attention to impact at this level.

Level 2 Listening

Our awareness is on the other person and on our impact:

  • Listen for their words, watch their expressions, sense their emotions.
  • Notice what is unsaid and read between the lines.
  • You choose what to respond to and how, and you notice your impact.

To be on the receiving end of Level 2 listening feels like the other person is saying “I have time for you” not just “I have time to address this problem”.

Level 2 is about using “active listening” skills.

Level 3 Listening

In Level 3 listening, the whole environment gives you information. You draw on your intuition.

This is a natural level for performers to operate at – when they walk on stage and can instantly read the energy of the room. Similarly, classroom educators seem to have a sense for when students are understanding or lost.

You’ve got some Level 3 listening acumen, too. I know you’ve picked up on tension in a room even if no one has actually said anything. Or when you pick up on someone’s vibe.

While this post will focus on Level 2 listening, know that Level 3 skill will automatically be developed as you get more and more adept at your active listening skills.

Active Listening Skills Overview

Here is a quick overview of the main tenets of active listening:

  • First, get into the right mindset - one that is neutral and open.
  • Next, put your awareness on the other person by paying attention to both verbal and non-verbal messages.
  • Then, as part of your intentional impact, actively show signs of listening: nodding, facial expressions, eye contact, leaning in, mirroring, small verbal interjections like “uh huh”
  • And as the other part of your intentional impact, remember your role as listener is to understand the speaker so use your speaking time to deepen your understanding.

Response skills

Basic skills for deepening the understanding include reflecting back what’s been said, asking questions to deepen the exchange or for clarification, and to periodically summarize the discussion so far.

Here are several response starters. There’s no need to get fancy. You can get an amazing amount of mileage from these alone.

1. Reflect back what’s been said.

  • What I’m hearing is...
  • It sounds like you are saying...

2. Ask questions to deepen the exchange.

  • What was it like for you...
  • How did you feel about...

3. Ask questions for clarification.

  • What do you mean when you say...
  • Do you mean x when you say...

4. Summarize periodically.

Offer a quick recap of what you've heard in the discussion.

If you find yourself getting emotional, it is okay to say so… but be sure to check for your own (mis)understanding.

  • I may not be understanding you correctly and I find myself [getting stressed][starting to take this personally][feeling upset]. What I thought you conveyed was [X]. Is that what you meant?
  • Since you mentioned [X], I’m finding myself getting really excited. Before I get too caught up in that, I want to check my understanding. Are you saying …

Advanced Response Skills

1. Meta-View

When you are paraphrasing what’s been said or checking for understanding, it can sometimes be helpful to put it into a broader context. Maybe that’s a strategic goal, or a project objective, or some other higher-level touchstone. It could also be in relation to a theme or pattern you’ve noticed from your vantage point. The Meta-View just refers to a way of reminding people of the big picture, which opens up space for perspective.

One key differentiator between leaders/managers and individual contributors is a responsibility to hold onto the big picture while working with staff on specific detailed issues. If you are a leader or aspire to be one, this is an especially advantageous skill to demonstrate.

2. Metaphor or Analogy

Another advanced response skill is to leverage metaphors or analogies. Sometimes a layer of abstraction and using entirely different words can help clarify meaning or make a subject more approachable. This can work especially well if the exchange is charged in any way, putting a little distance between the issue and the person.

As humans, we naturally think and speak metaphorically all the time. Dropping the ball, having a lot on our plate, feeling foggy, etc.

Take this as a permission slip to intentionally leverage metaphors and analogies when you are summarizing during a discussion or offering your opinion.

3. Acknowledging

Acknowledging is a very specific type of praise or compliment that highlights the inner character you see in the person. It often focuses on a value the person honored or demonstrated.

For example:

  • You really showed your commitment to learning when you did [X].
  • I see a person who is willing to take risks, even if it is uncomfortable.
  • Your ability to both take a firm stand and then pivot as needed reflects your managerial courage.

This goes far beyond the standard “good job” or “well, you tried your best”. Learn to acknowledge authentically and you will both be a supportive manager or team member but will also end up building additional social capital within your organization.

Applied Learning

If you’ve never critically assessed your listening skills, you’re certainly not alone. But that changes now.

Grab this free worksheet that walks you through a self-assessment on constructive and unhelpful listening behaviors.

It also contains some questions to ponder regarding the listening culture in your organization.

Notes from the Field

Hostility toward questions

If you suddenly start asking questions, some people are hostile to it. Or maybe that’s why you don’t do it in the first place. Some people perceive questions as a sign you are have an ulterior motive or are being accusatory in some way.

You can try to diffuse this by saying you are intentionally working on your active listening skills, and that practicing asking more questions is a part of it.

Some people always hate being asked questions, so it is up to you if you continue to ask them. While it is totally legitimate and a healthy practice, it may be counterproductive if you are in a toxic dynamic.

Frustration with reflection and paraphrasing

Some people will get frustrated with you for checking your understanding or if you paraphrase them “incorrectly”. Again you can try to diffuse this by talking about it being an established part of active listening skills that you are personally working on. Or it might be counterproductive if they are stuck in their maladaptive behavior.

Group dynamics

It can be easier to practice active listening in a one-on-one setting or very small group. As groups are larger, it can be a little harder since there is more going on.

If you want to dip your toe in the water, you can start with summarizing/paraphrasing the whole group’s discussion for the last 5-10 minutes.

If you manage a team or recurring meeting, you can assign temporary roles for individuals (e.g., reflect back, clarify through questions, summarize) to normalize the practice.

*There are a variety of frameworks for listening skills. I personally like the articulation from Co-Active, which breaks listening into three levels. I also find the Leadership Architect competency framework very helpful. This article draws on those sources.*

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