To be a great leader, you must be a great listener. How well you listen determines how well you connect with people and connection is key to leadership.
“When you speak, you repeat what you know. When you listen, you learn something new.”
– Dalai Lama
I came across many courses and trainings on public speaking, with practical tips on how to become a better speaker. But, how do you become a better listener?
I always thought I was a good listener. But if I am being honest with myself, this wasn’t the case. I generally had plenty to say for myself. Many times I had a conversations with people, thinking I was listening to them, but I wasn’t.
So what was I doing instead of listening?
I was waiting for them to pause, take a breath, so I can talk and give advice or share my opinion. Thinking about it, I wanted to relate what they were saying to my own experience, rather than understanding their experience.
Forming a response in my head while they were talking, to show that I was listening and that I am be able to come up with something clever to say or with a smart solution to their problem.
Planning my next meeting, thinking about next project… I was focused on other things and they kept popping up in my head and distracting me from the conversation.
Multitasking, as my to-do list was so long and I believed that I can manage both. Very often this happened on calls, where people couldn’t see me. And when a question was asked, my response was: “Sorry, I was on mute, can you repeat the question?” As if the mute button could impact my ability to hear a question. So what was I really saying? That I wasn’t listening.
That is why I had to learn some lessons about the fundamentals of good listening. And once I did, I noticed that it is truly incredible what you can hear and learn when you really listen!
3 Levels of Listening
In this level of listening we are focused on our own thoughts, opinions, judgments. We relate what is being said to our own experiences. We all have voices in our heads. The voices can be telling you already if you agree or disagree with the person talking, without hearing them out fully, they could be thinking about a solution to their problem. Or your mind just drifts and you are thinking about things you need to do, conversation you had earlier that day, or your next meeting.
And what might surprise you is that we tend to use this kind of listening majority of the time. Often unconsciously.
In level 1 listening, we are not present and we are not really hearing the other person.
In level 2 listening, our undivided attention is entirely on the person talking and the conversation. We are hearing what is being said, but also noticing how it is said. We are paying attention to the tone of voice, the body language and the facial expressions of the other person. Here we are able to filter out our internal conversations and any other distractions, including our own ideas. We apply here empathy, we are tuned in to the meaning of the words, maybe asking questions and being curious, especially when we have a different point of you or when we don’t see things the same way. We choose how we respond and assess how the response will impact the other person.
In this level of listening we are creating a connection with the individual talking. We are less attached to our own views and opinions and we are seeking to understand them. We are not thinking about ourselves, our experiences, we are giving our full attention to the speaker. We are physically, mentally and emotionally present.
Lever 3 listening involves Level 2 listening + using our intuition. It has a wider focus and we are listening for deep insights. We hear more than just the words. We can pick up on different things, body language, tone of voice, pauses and hesitations. We are fully tunned in. It is almost like when you can hear what is happening in their mind. We feel them trying to avoid something and we have a sense of what that might be. We are so tuned in, so when they describe their experience and we really listen to them, we can almost feel we are there with them, experiencing the emotions they are experiencing. We are utilizing all of our senses.
This deep level of listening helps us to truly see and understand others better. We are not focused on us, our agenda, on action, or solving problems. We are simply being with the other person. In this level of listening you believe that this person is the most interesting person you ever met and they are capable of solving their own problems. This inspires commitment.
In this level of listening we are so connected to them and because of that connection they feel empowered. When we allow ourselves to get curious about others, their experiences, their point of view, we can really grow and evolve.
It is important to call out here that understanding is not the same as agreement. We don’t have to share the same opinion, but we understand the way they think.
How to develop deeper level of listening
I have been working on developing different levels of listening for a while. It takes time, commitment and energy. It requires me to be fully present. But in return it builds trust, understanding and connection.
Here are some tips from my own experience that can help you develop deeper level of listening.
Be present – before a meeting or a conversation, take deep breaths, set an intention for yourself to be present, to be curious and to connect with the other person. Try to put everything else aside and just be there.
Stop talking and listen to understand – resist the urge to think about what you will say next. And should you hear the voices in your heard, or should your mind wonder, notice it. Put is aside and refocus on the person in front of you.
Be curious – be curious about the person in front of you, about what they have to say, what you may learn from them. What helped me was to imagine that I had the most amazing person in front of me and they had something very important and interesting to say to me. And when I did, I truly had the most amazing person sitting in front of me and I wanted to know more about them and their views.
Ask questions – ask open-ended or directive questions. For example you may ask: “ Help me understand…”, “What would it look like (or feel like) when you accomplish this…”, “Why is this important to you?”, “Can you tell me more about it?”, “How would this work?”
Trust your intuition, your gut - if you feel like you are not getting a complete story, or there is something that is not being said, be curious about it
Observe and notice any body language changes – have they change their position, what are they doing with their hands, are they looking down? These might all clues for you to explore more and ask more questions
Observe and notice tone of voice – are they pausing, making subtle references, has the speed change? These might be all signals that there is more to their story.
The thing about listening is that, above all else, it is a choice. And as with any other skills, it needs to be practiced.
Which of these techniques will help you advance your listening skills?