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Why Active Listening Isn't Enough

It seems that last week I was not the only Podcast talking about having Difficult Conversations! Simon Sinek also talked about the subject with David Harris, they had a great conversation so I would recommend checking it out. 

While we came at the subject from very different starting points, there were three key themes that we both covered - the important thing is to have these conversations, the need to be open to new ideas while you are having them and the importance of listening.  

One of the questions Simon asked David was how he learned to listen so well.  And it’s a great question, the research shows us that less than 25% of professionals have had any formal training in listening, yet we know it’s a key leadership skill, and it’s fundamental when you are leading change.  I would even argue it’s a key life skill.

So, are you ready?  Its time to get curious and make some choices about how we listen!

How do you learn to listen?

We have lots of training available on how to present and how to talk, and structure our ideas for other people, but not in how to listen effectively or take in that information.  

If we are in the happy minority who have had some training it’s probably been in how to actively listen.  How to look like we are paying attention, to nod and to make encouraging sounds.  We may even have been taught to mirror the other person’s body language or summarise what they have told us.  

And there is nothing wrong with active listening - but it’s not enough especially if we want to get the benefits of being a good listener.

The Benefits Of Great Listening

And those benefits are substantial.  Being able to listen greatly is fundamental to building our relationships with our teams, and that is what underpins our ability to work with them effectively.  It’s important for our teams to feel listened to and listening is one of the key ways you let people know you value them.  Listening well allows us to build trust, show empathy and compassion

It does the same for our relationships with our stakeholders and clients making sure we are truly understanding what they need from us, identify solutions that are going to work and how we resolve any challenges that come up.  Listening well will also ensure we understand what is happening in our wider organisation and in the wider world we operate in, which not only helps us make decisions but it also builds our credibility.

As Curious Choice leaders, listening to what you are hearing and not hearing around you is a basic part of being curious.  Listening is the best way to gather information.

Not All Listening Is The Same

And good listening is indeed very active.  It’s not something we sit passively and do, it’s not letting sound wash over you may be the way that you would if we were relaxing and listening to a meditation tape or a favourite piece of music.  When we're listening in the context of leadership listening is a much more participative activity than that

So we know we can listen differently at different times and we don’t need to listen with the same intensity all the time.  The art is knowing how you need to listen at different times. Listening well takes conscious effort and energy, so picking the right level to listen at helps you get the most from conversations without taking more energy and effort than you need it to.

The Different Levels Of Listening - Listening Staircase

Let’s take a look at the different levels of listening. 

Imagine a staircase and each step that we talk about is a build on the one before heading towards really really great listening.

Ignoring Listening

At the bottom step of the staircase that is what I call ignoring.  What's happening here as we may think we're listening, we may even tell people we are listening but actually were busy doing something else.  So we haven't engaged our brain in the situation or in what's going on around us.  We are not even listening actively when we are listening like this.  If you think about meetings you have been to recently, or if you live with a teenager you may have experienced this.  It’s not great when you are the speaker.

When you listen like this or rather don’t listen like this, you run a high risk of damaging your relationships.

Pretending to Listen

Then as we step up the listening staircase the next step is where people are pretending to listen.  They may be looking at the speaker and maybe even nodding, but what is happening internally for them is very different, they are desperately listening for the pause in the conversation so they can say something, which may or may not still be relevant to the conversation.  This can happen because we are not paying sufficient attention, or because we have an idea that we really want to share, and sometimes remembering it becomes so big in our minds that we forget to keep listening. 

As leaders when we do this to our teams the impact is that we shut down conversations and disengage our teams.  It’s also something we can help our teams manage by ensuring that people all get an opportunity to contribute to a discussion.

Selective Listening

On the next step up the listening staircase from pretending to listen is what's called selective listening.  What’s happening here is the person is taking in and beginning to process the information that's going on in the rest of the conversation but they're listening for things that they can disagree with, or make a point they think makes them look like the best person in the room.

This kind of listening can often be perceived very negatively, and if we listen like this as a leader we not only close the conversation down but we effectively tell our teams that we know better than them about everything and they will soon stop bringing ideas to us and speaking up at meetings.

I’m sure if you think about meetings you’ve been to recently you can think of plenty of examples of each of these levels of listening, !

Listening at these levels may be active, but it’s not enough to get you the benefits that good listening will.  You are not going to be getting all the information that is available to you, or understand new perspectives, or help your team feel understood and valued.  And that all matters more than ever when we are experiencing a lot of change.

Levels of Listeninkg - The Llistening Staircase

Attentive Listening

If we want to use our listening effectively, we need to move up to the next level of listening.  It’s quite a big step to get to Attentive Listening but this is the minimum level of listening we need to aim to be at when we are working with team members, especially when we are leading change.  

At this level, we are listening to make sure we understand the other person’s perspective, and it’s where we start making a positive impact in the relationship we have with the person we are listening to.  Approaching conversations with the intent to understand the other person’s perspective and to demonstrate that understanding takes a lot of energy and focus, which can be hard at first, but the more you do it the easier it will become.  

When I’ve talked with people about attentive listening there is a common misunderstanding that I think it’s worth calling out here.  Understanding someone’s perspective does not mean you have to agree with it.  When you are listening in this way however together you will be able to work backwards through their thinking to a point where you do agree and to a point where you can have a great discussion about those differences.

You don’t need to listen at this level all of the time, but it should be the minimum level you aim to listen at when you are working one to one with people or in high-pressure situations.  You’ll also find a lot of benefits listening like this when you work with stakeholders and clients.

Empathetic Listening

So what’s on the top step of our listening staircase?  Well, it’s Empathetic Listening where we are listening from the other person’s perspective, from their frame of reference, seeing the world through their eyes.  To do this we need to be able to quieten our inner voice and the thoughts we have sparked by what the other person has said, we need to be able to listen without judging the speaker.  

This takes a lot of practice, but once we are able to do this we will notice the benefits in terms of our relationships, how effectively we are able to communicate and ultimately in our team’s performance.  Personally, I know I also found I was getting less frustrated with people at work once I learned to listen like this because I was better able to understand where they were coming from I was more able to get my point across to them and we were able to get great outcomes and results.  It certainly helped me manage various bosses I had and proved invaluable on a number of very difficult projects!

What Stops Us Being Great Listeners?

So what stops us all listening like this all the time?

It’s hard work and we can easily become distracted by our thoughts, by ideas sparked by the conversation, by things that were worrying us anyway or things we needed to remember, like thinking about the conversation we had with someone just before this, or maybe by a book we are reading, you get the gist!  Great listening means muting those internal thoughts and reminders for a while.

It's also harder to listen when you are tired.  If your energy levels are too low you literally won’t have enough energy to listen well. While on the other end of the scale, if your energy levels are too high and you are buzzing so much you can hardly stay still, you will also find listening hard as your mind will flit around more. Yet another reason to manage your energy as a leader.

The environment we are in makes a big difference - For example, it’s harder to listen well in a noisy environment,  so it’s worth doing the things you can to manage this.  If you find listening over video conference hard try using headphones to cut out the other distractions.

Improving Your Listening Skills

So, you may be wondering how you can become a better listener

The first step is to notice which level you are listening at in different work situations. Then ask yourself if you have been listening at the best level.  Most people tend to find there are at least one or two activities where they need to make a significant change in how they are listening.

I suggest picking one of those activities at a time and really focus on listening at the level you want to during it.  At the end, take time and review how you did and what you could do to improve even further.  Once you are confident in that situation start focusing on the next one on your list and practice listening as you want to in that and so on until you are confident you are listening at the right levels.

Summary & Taking Action

OK, so in this episode, we have talked about listening and how if we have had any training at all in listening, it’s probably been that we need to listen actively.  That’s a good start point and as leaders, we need to take it further.  We broke listening down into different levels, ignoring, pretend and selective listening, which don’t help us be effective leaders and then the levels we need to aim to be listening at, attentive listening where we are listening to understand and empathetic listening where we are listening so we can see the world from the other person’s perspective.

The things I share are based on my experiences and some will be more relevant to you than others - it’s up to you to decide what you take and apply from this podcast.  That’s what Curious Choice Leadership is all about - getting curious and building our understanding then evaluating what we find and making choices about what’s right for us and our business

And the question I would like to leave you with is:

In what situations do you need to step up how you are listening?

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