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Mayes Wilson & Associates

Are your listening skills as good as you think they are?

Sara Wilson, CPCC, ACC |

I recently had a couple of experiences that got me thinking about how we can always work harder to improve our listening skills:

  • During a conversation, rather than listening, I started thinking about how to respond.
  • I was talking to someone and suddenly their phone’s email notification sound dinged and they immediately checked their phone.

You can probably think of other similar situations when you or the person you are trying to talk to becomes distracted. This is a problem because when we’re not really listening or present in the conversation, we can miss nonverbal clues and other key details. This may cause others to perceive us as not credible, or untrustworthy. In Co-Active Coaching, we call this Level One listening.

Higher level listening

To become a certified coach, they required us to spend a lot of time learning and demonstrating our ability at higher listening levels:

  • In Level Two listening you are intensely focused on what the other person is saying. Nothing’s distracting you. Thoughts about the past or the future don’t intrude. Even your own ideas don’t get in the way of you hearing the other person.
  • Level Three listening is also completely directed towards the other person, but it has a wider focus. You hear more than just the words they’re saying. There are many other signals they are using to communicate–body language, inflections, tone of voice, pauses and hesitations. You can feel the other person straining to avoid something, or pulling towards something–and you have a sense of what that might be. In Level Three listening you are really focused and engaged with the other person.

Is active listening the answer?

To learn how to focus on the person we are listening to, a lot of us who’ve been in management since the 1990s learned a technique called “active listening” which involved nodding a lot and then repeating back what the other person said.

More recent research* shows active listening might not be sufficient. If you are silent and don’t get involved in the conversation, the other person may actually perceive you as being disengaged. Try the suggestions below to move from being a Level One to a Level Three listener.

Level Three Listening Skills

  1. Work to create a two-way dialog by offering quick questions that promote discovery or insight. You can also challenge the other person, but do so gently and constructively. (In contrast, poor listeners are seen as competitive — using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. )
  2. Make the experience a positive one by offering comments that support the other person and build their self-esteem. Focus on creating a safe environment where issues can be discussed openly. (People perceived as poor listeners tend to give negative feedback such as identifying errors in the other person’s timing, reasoning or logic.)
  3. Provide suggestions that open up alternative paths for the other person to consider. Think of yourself as a trampoline that the other person can bounce ideas off of. Your comments and suggestions should amplify and energize their thinking. (Be sure you aren’t just trying to solve their problem for them. Don’t offer leading questions where you have a “right answer” you’re hoping the other person guesses.)

I use Level Three listening with my coaching clients to “get below the surface” to understand roadblocks and limiting perceptions in order to help clients move toward their goals. You can use these skills as a manager and leader, as well as at home with partners, families and kids! ‌

* “What Great Listeners Actually Do,” Harvard Business Review, 7/14/2016.

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