Effective leadership is built on relationships and listening — really listening — is an important ingredient for building and maintaining those relationships. While most of us believe we are competent listeners, it sometimes takes a deeper understanding of the art of listening to realize that we may not be as good at it as we think.
The Levels of Listening
Listening isn’t just as simple as hearing something that was said. There are, in fact, five different levels of listening and the higher the level, the greater the impact it has on relationships.
Level 1: Superficial listening – This is hardly even a form of listening. As we breeze by someone, we say: “Good morning! How are you?” There was a response and we heard it, but it barely registers as we are moving on to more important things.
Level 2: Fact-focused listening – Sometimes we are seeking information – what is the temperature outside, what time is the meeting, what were the sales numbers last week? We can listen to a report and hear only the important facts that we are seeking. It is as if we have a filter that just catches the bits that we need to know at the moment.
Level 3: Self-focused listening – This is the first level of listening that actually requires some mental processing. In self-focused listening we are taking in the conversation while looking for the implications that affect us. Is there something of value to me? Is there a threat to me? Do I need to do something? How will this affect my comfort or workload? The list goes on. As we are processing, we gather in bits and pieces of the conversation hoping to capture and process the information most critical to us on a personal level. Unfortunately, it is impossible to listen fully as we process information.
Level 4: Other-focused listening – This level of listening is the first level where we, as the listener, truly care about the other person and what is being communicated. At this level, we make the effort to limit distractions and focus on completely hearing what the other person is saying. We take in all of the words of the conversation, not just those that matter to our own well-being.
Level 5: Intuitive listening – This level, sometimes referred to as discerning listening, 360 listening, or other names, is the type of listening where we have the possibility to fully understand. This level is not just taking in the words, but also processing the other parts of communication such as body language, tone, and emotions and integrating all facets as we seek to understand fully what is being presented.
Challenges to Effective Listening
Even when we seek to listen, there are challenges that derail us. Once we are aware of some of these common impediments to effective listening, we are better able to lessen or negate their impact. Let’s look at a few of the most common of them.
- Distractions – When too many things are going on around us, our attention is drawn away from the person we are seeking to understand. Take important conversations to a place with limited distractions.
- Inability to focus – When pressing matters are crying for our attention, or we have just finished with another highly-charged conversation and can’t block that from our thoughts, we find ourselves unable to focus. Schedule the conversation for another time.
- Preparing a rebuttal – It is impossible to fully listen when we are focused on justifying ourselves.
- Defining a solution – If we are thinking about the solution to the problem described in the conversation, we run the risk of not fully understanding the problem.
- Lack of interest – Let’s face it, there are conversations or people in which it is difficult for us to generate interest.
Points to Remember
The following are some important points to remember when seeking to improve our listening skills:
- Effective listening requires that we quiet our minds, that we are fully present, that we focus on the speaker, and that we value the other person and what they are communicating.
- Not every conversation requires that we utilize intuitive listening or even a high level of listening. But having the skill to do so and the discernment to know when to really focus on listening and understanding is an important contributor to our effectiveness as a leader.
- Listening communicates value and acceptance. The effort that we put into actively listening and understanding tells people how much we care about them.
- Listening demonstrates openness. Seeking out the input of others and taking the time to fully explore and understand ideas opens minds and opens the flow of information and innovation.
- Listening energizes. An organization in which the people and their lives and thoughts are valued has a higher level of energy that plays out in the way the organization works together to achieve goals.
The quality of our listening will determine the quality of our influence, and leadership is all about influence. People follow those whom they trust and respect. Therefore, listening is an important, if not sometimes overlooked, part of building the relationships of leaders.
Ken is a business strategy consultant and leadership coach. His passion is helping companies and people grow and succeed. With an engineering degree and an MBA, he spent more than 20 years working in M&A and business development in the corporate world before founding New Horizon Partners, Inc. in 2002. His consulting practice works with a wide variety of industrial companies, helping them make good decisions about where and how to compete and building their leadership capabilities. To read other articles by Ken on business strategy and leadership, visit the New Horizon Partners website.