If you’ve played music in any kind of group you know how important listening is. You listen actively so you can play accurately. Your success in your relationships at home, at work, or anywhere else also depend greatly on the quality of your listening. Listening is an incredibly important gateway. It’s how we receive the world around us. If your listening is not accurate then your reactions will be based on an inaccurate version of reality.

The word “listening” in this article refers not only to hearing, but having all of one’s available facilities such as hearing, seeing, mental focus, intuition, and heart tuned in to receive what another person is getting across to you. This article will outline three levels of listening from least to most effective and show you some concrete ways to practice listening.

First, here are some benefits that come with enhancing your listening skills:

  • Create Intrinsic Motivation. Listening to others at a deep level will help them come up with their best ideas and inspire intrinsic motivation. When someone discovers solutions themselves there are three different areas of the brain that light up. In these “aha” moments new neural connections are established and a person is naturally inspired to action. When someone is told what to do, even if they are “good” and follow through with their task nothing lights up and no changes take place.
  • Make quicker and more accurate decisions. The practice of listening will sharpen your sensitivity to subtleties in your environment and increase your ability to understand others around you.  Both of these factors will empower you to be a stronger leader and decision maker.
  • Build strong relationships. Deep listening often brings out the best in people and can inspire them to listen to you in the same manner when you need it. As you increase your level of listening you may suddenly find yourself surrounded by generous people who deeply appreciate you! They may be the same people who, before you started listening at a deeper level, did not seem so generous or appreciative.
  • Increase performance at work. In knowledge-based organizations much team performance is built on trust. When people get the sense that you’re really listening to them, and motivated to understand what they are saying, their level of trust will increase.

To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the ‘music,’ but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in. Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow your mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning.
-Peter Senge

Level 0 Listening

Listening for your own story

You may be hearing the other person talking, but you’re not curious about them at all. Rather, you’re just listening with your own story in mind. There’s very little relating going on because you’re invested in reinforcing your own existing patterns of thinking rather than expanding them for someone else’s sake. Sometimes Level 0 Listening can slip into not listening at all as your mind becomes busy generating your story or solution for when it’s your turn to talk. It feels like you’re chomping at the bit for him or her to stop talking so you can start.

Level 1 Listening

Listening for casual connection

The listener’s focus remains on their interpretation of what they are hearing rather than what is being said and who is saying it. In Level 1 you may only listen as long as it takes to hear a bit of the other person’s story and then focus on a related experience or idea of your own. This is a typical, considerate, social level of listening; “Oh yeah, that reminds me of the time when I was…”

Of course it’s okay to comment on what others say, the key is to make your comments about understanding the speaker, not your own need to be heard. On a social level it can be entertaining to exchange stories. It can be validating and build some level of understanding with the other person. But, this flow of conversation only happens when there is a connection and understanding in place.

If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.
-Turkish Proverb

Level 2 Listening

Listening to understand without judgment

Level 2 gives you the tools to start understanding people more effectively, unlocking potential for improved relating, more effectiveness, and better decision making. The keys to unlocking full Level 2 ability are:

  • Keep your attention on the other person. If a related example comes to mind put it on the back shelf until you’re clear that it will be helpful to them. If it seems like it may help the situation, check in with them about it first. You can say something like “do you mind if I share a story that might clarify what you’re going for.”
  • Ask clarifying questions to gain a deeper understanding. For instance
    • Ask them to clarify what they are saying or to provide an example if you need more details.
    • Ask them to summarize what they said for you if they run on for a while.
    • Ask them to repeat what they said if you missed something. For example “I’m not sure if I fully understood the part about the new taxes. Can you repeat that for me?”
    • Reflect your understanding of what they said in order to confirm that you really understood. It’s very important to stick to what you actually heard them say without adding any of your own interpretation! For instance, “You’re pretty much telling me this is hopeless” is a statement that is laden with emotion and interpretation where as “I hear you say that I need to get my budget finalized by midnight” is reflecting back the facts as you heard them. Who knows, they might say, “no, I meant next week, not tonight.” By repeating the facts you create clarification instead of drama.
    • Suspend any judgment that arises (i.e. “I can’t believe how lazy this person is”) about who they are and what they are saying for better or worse. Sure, judgments happen, but do your best to put them aside. Just listen, keep your focus on them, and clarify as needed.
    • Check assumptions. If you’ve asked clarifying questions and still have an assumption then check it out with them. This will serve to confirm or negate your assumption. For example “I’m assuming from what you are saying that the family will not have enough to pay for heating this month, is that true?” As the old adage goes, if you don’t check out your assumptions you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”
    • Confirm your understanding. When you understand a major piece of what they’re saying tell them so. For instance, say “got it” or “yes. I understand.” This will help move the conversation forward to the next step. Also, ask if he or she feels understood. That’s the real test. A “yes” to the question, “Do I understand you?” verifies that a really meaningful communication has taken place.
    • Interrupt when necessary. It’s ok to interrupt people in an effort to understand them. A co-worker, employee, or family member might lose focus of the original problem and start flooding you with a Pandora’s Box of issues. In this case it’s ok to nudge them back on track or to take stock of the issues that they’ve mentioned and work with them to determine the priorities. While letting them vent can be helpful – if you’re starting to feel wiped out save yourself, interrupt, and guide the conversation in a way that you can stay on top of it.

Level 2 is all about focused attention – getting clear on what is being said by the other person. Remember that most communication isn’t related through words. It is related through vocal tone and body language as well. If a person says they’re doing fine and then stomps off with knitted eyebrows or heaves a big sigh what are they really saying? What are they needing? Get clarity on mixed verbal/physical signals. “What are you telling me with that big sigh?”

Sometimes people are afraid of clarity. If you’re in a supervisor role they might be scared their work is not good enough – or that you’re scrutinizing them. It’s important to reassure people that you’re not trying to catch them out on something but to support them in what they’re trying to accomplish. When they are confident you are an ally rather than an investigator they will be more open to your questions and appreciate the support.

Know how to listen, and you will profit even from those who talk badly.
– Plutarch

Level 3 Listening

Listening as a meditation with the intention to help

Level 3 adds the element of intuition to all the skills of Level 2. Intuition is a right-brain function that allows for fresh insight and creative thinking. In order to use your intuition it is important that you open to possibilities, to connections that you may not have made before. When you really get in touch with your intuition it can be like having an internal Magic 8 ball (remember those?). The intuition seems to slowly rise out of the dark and display itself.

When sharing your intuition release any attachment for it to be right or wrong. It’s just a hunch and should be shared in that regard. “Hey, as you were speaking I started wondering if some kind of mentoring program might be the solution. What do you think?” Offer ownership of the solution back to the other person as much as possible. This gives them a chance to have an “aha” moment and get inspired about it on their own. Their intrinsic motivation will pay great dividends down the road.

Everyone has intuitive abilities on some level. Opening to this right-brain function is largely a matter of what Harvard Professor Dr. Herbert Benson calls “The Relaxation Response.” It is the physiological opposite of the fight or flight response that occurs when we perceive danger. To invoke the relaxation response do three things

  1. Breathe deeply expanding your belly as you breathe in so that you expand your diaphragm muscle – letting your lungs fill completely with air.
  2. Relax and open the front of your body. For example, relax your shoulders and your brow. It helps to keep your spine straight. For contrast, you can hunch your shoulders, tighten your solar plexus, and furrow your brow into what might be called a cartoon villain posture (i.e. Gargamel from The Smurfs, Mr Burns from the Simpsons, Dr Heinz Doofenschmirtz from Phineas & Ferb, The Wicked Witch from Snow White) Then, open and relax again.
  3. Be the unattached observer of your thoughts. Let them pass as if you were observing them as clouds passing through a blue sky. This means don’t get attached to being relaxed either – just let it come at it’s own pace.

Incidentally, the three steps above (minus the cartoon villain part) are main components of meditation forms that have been going on for thousands of years in different parts of the world. Tibetan monks and Transcendental Meditation from India were some of the inspiration for Dr. Benson’s research.

It’s ok to take notes. This can help keep your mind focused on what they’re saying.

As you relax and open to potential solutions you may invoke the Magic 8 Ball effect and observe solutions that seem to arise from no will of your own. This is simply the use of right brain intelligence

Level 3 listening harnesses active listening (Level 2) and a meditative focus. At this level you become a detached thinking partner and ally – a fellow explorer and supporter for the members of your team or your family. This stance promotes

  • Engagement, intrinsic motivation, and “aha” moments for the person that you are listening to.
  • An alliance of trust rather than the separation and distrust that can plague command and control style leaders.
  • Understanding of the people around you and the unique challenges they face
  • Better team work and cooperation through shared understanding and trust
  • Higher performance for all involved as knowledge is allowed to flow and spark creative solutions.
  • “Blue Water” productivity that takes advantage of everyone’s unique strengths in the organization – revolutionary ideas that are beyond the grasp of command and control ways of doing things.

Level 4 Listening

Listening fearlessly, with total heart

Level 4 adds the quality of profound empathy to those skills in Level 3. In level 4 you listen to the other person as if they are you. You feel what they feel. You are deeply connected with them. Great leaders listen like this. As an example, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Richard Ryan the other day. Rich is one of the founders of Self-Determination Theory. He’s one of the most prominent psychology researchers in the world. As soon as I spoke to Rich I got the immediate sense that what I said truly mattered to him. He was the opposite of aloof. He was listening to me absolutely and completely, with both his head and heart. The experience was very enlivening. He was ready to jump right in with me with whatever I was experiencing. I felt like I had made an instant friend.  With total commitment on his part, I noticed my self-appraisal escalated. It became easier to explain some complex ideas I had in mind because I had no reason to defend myself.

I know that Rich is a long-time meditator, and that it probably took him a great deal of practice to reach the level where he commits himself so completely to each person he meets. I watched him do the same thing with each person he met throughout the five-day conference I was attending. His energy seemed boundless.

Here’s the short list of tips for effective listening. Be aware that each step takes practice.

  1. Pay attention. Keep your focus on the other person.
  2. Recognize judgments and let them pass.
  3. Go for clarity and understanding. Check your assumptions.
  4. Be an ally rather than an investigator
  5. Open and relax so you can receive intuition and fresh ideas. Offer them without attachment.
  6. Commit yourself totally and fearlessly to the other person’s experience.