“I Want to Be a Really Good Listener”

Guest contributed by Linda O’Neill, VP of Strategic Services at Vigilant


Image via Shutterstock


Over the past several weeks, I’ve noticed a pattern in what I’m hearing from my professional colleagues. Many of them are having what they describe as difficult conversations with employees, whether it’s about redundancies, new roles, new expectations or even coverage for the holidays. When I ask my clients how they want to “be” for these conversations, most are saying, “I want to be a really good listener.”

Throughout our lives we are taught a lot about speaking effectively. Unfortunately, most of us have received little training on being a “really good listener.” There are, however, resources and information available to enhance listening skills. Read on for information about the different levels of listening as well as some tips for being more effective.

Levels of Listening

Most listening experts agree there are different “levels” of listening. As the level of listening goes up so does the sophistication. Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT and co-founder of the Presencing Institute, developed a set of principles on listening and they are among my favorites. He describes four levels: 1) Downloading; 2) Factual; 3) Empathic; and 4) Generative.

  • In level 1, Downloading listening, you are listening from habit and reconfirming old opinions and judgments. You are listening at this level when what you hear and experience tends to confirm what you already know.
  • At level 2, Factual listening, you’re listening for facts and noticing new data. You have an open mind. You focus on what is different from what you already know and pay attention to the responses of others. Both Level 1 and Level 2 listening are focused on taking in, digesting and understanding information.

When a listener moves to Levels 3 and 4, he/she brings forth more of the heart and will.

  • Level 3 is Empathic listening. It involves listening from within and with an open heart. When listening at Level 3, you are able to see the world through the eyes of another and often forget about your own agenda. In this level, an emotional connection is achieved in addition to the sharing of information.
  • In Level 4, an open heart transcends to open will. During Level 4 Generative listening, the listener is operating from a place of future possibilities. Scharmer uses words like “communion” and “grace” when describing the experience of Level 4 listening.

The first step in increasing your own listening skills is to notice your tendencies when you’re listening. What’s going on your head, heart and body when you are working to be a “really good listener”? From this place of noticing, you can begin to gain sophistication and effectiveness in your skills. Read on for some tips.

Tips for Effective Listening

  1. Be clear about your intention: Before having an important or difficult conversation, it is important to spend some quiet time getting clear about your intentions for the conversation.  Be deliberate in defining your intention; write it down. Now think about how you will demonstrate it. For example, decide how much you want to talk during the conversation and how much you want to listen. If your goal is to be a “really good listener,” you’ll spend less time talking than the other person. If you’re spending a lot of time explaining and defending your position, you’re probably not listening at the level you desire.
  2. Be Present: When you engage in a conversation, engage fully. Put aside distractions and give the other person your full attention. Put all your energy into gathering information and gaining understanding at multiple levels (head, heart, body, will). Listen for the overall message as well as the words; hear what is said as well as what is unsaid. Restate what you heard in your own words to confirm your understanding. Reflect feelings as well as words to listen at a deeper level. “Sounds like you’re saying…” or “Sounds like you’re feeling…”. Release judgment until you have a full understanding. Let go of the temptation to craft your response to what you’re hearing while the other person is still talking. According to Tom D.  Lewis and Gerald Graham, most individuals speak at the rate of 175 to 200 words per minute. However, research suggests that we are capable of listening and processing words at the rate of 600 to 1,000 words per minute. Because a listener can listen at a faster rate than most speakers can talk, there is a tendency to evaluate too quickly. That tendency is perhaps the greatest barrier to effective listening.
  3. Acknowledge: It is often important for a person to be acknowledged and understood before he/she will be willing to engage in a dialogue or negotiation on a difficult topic.  Acknowledgment does not mean you agree with what is being said, merely that you hear and understand it. Sometimes acknowledgment can be accomplished with a simple nod of the head.   When in person, use eye contact, lean forward, relax your arms, and put away electronic devices. Engagement often goes hand-in-hand with acknowledgment. It is hard to feel acknowledged if a speaker does not feel he/she has your attention. When on the phone, remove distractions and listen hard to changes in tone, pace, volume and rhythm of the speaker’s voice. These all provide important clues about the speaker when you are listening at Levels 3 and 4.  These clues will allow you to effectively understand and acknowledge the speaker’s message.
  4. Invest in your own self-awareness: Understanding your own speaking and listening style and the biases you bring to the table will help you open up your heart and will to more sophisticated levels of listening. A high degree of self-awareness will not only improve the effectiveness of your listening but also the quality of your relationships and ultimately your ability to lead.

An unknown source said, “We were given two ears but only one mouth, because listening is twice as hard as talking.” Developing listening skills is hard work; putting the skills into action is even harder.  You’ll know you’ve been listening effectively when at the end of a conversation you’re tired! You’ll feel like you’ve extended some effort. Listening is active, especially when you engage at Levels 3 and 4. I promise the rewards will be worth the effort!