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Management Tools: Three Steps to Turn Up Your Listening Skills

Becoming a focused and empathetic listener takes time and effort. Here's how to get started.

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Most of us operate on autopilot much of the time. Our natural way of thinking is to confirm what we already believe, while our kneejerk emotional reaction to new information is to engage in the 3 “Ds”: to deny, defend and deflect in order to protect our egos. When it comes to listening, here too our natural tendency is to confirm and defend; we focus more on ourselves than the person with whom we are speaking. I call this “Level I” listening.

Getting to the next level—high-quality, deliberate, focused, empathetic, open-minded, non-defensive listening—takes a bit of work. But it is well worth the effort, as this “Level II listening” is a learned skill that will enable people to think critically and innovatively, to collaborate well, and to relate to others on an emotional level—all of which is critical to success in the 21st century workplace.

Level I Listening

This is the listening we do instinctively. While our intentions may be good, this type of listening is often ineffective because it is not focused on the other person. Instead, it’s about you: You looking smart; you being liked; you being right. Here are common Level I listening behaviors:

  • Thinking about your response before the speaker is finished.
  • Finishing the speaker’s sentence out loud or in your head.
  • Interrupting the speaker.
  • Letting your mind wander to think about something you think is more important.
  • Interpreting the speaker’s message in a way that makes you feel comfortable or smart.
  • Offering advice before being asked.
  • Asking leading questions to get the answer you want.
  • Sharing your own experience before fully exploring the speaker’s experience.

Level II Listening

So how do you take your listening to a higher, more productive, level? You can do so in three steps.

1.Get ready to listen. Before the conversation begins, put yourself in a listening frame of mind with calmed emotions and a quiet ego. Listening requires concentration: Be present, in the moment, with an open mind. Take two minutes to get into the right frame of mind by taking some deep breathes and saying to yourself:

  • “Listening is not about me.”
  • “Slow down. Don’t rush to conclusions. Seek to understand.”
  • “Listen to learn—don’t be defensive.”
  • “I am not my idea.”
  • “Show the other person that I care about what they are saying.”

2. Go slow and reflect. Slow down. Suspend judgment and intentionally think about what the other person just said. Do you really understand? What did he or she really mean?

Usually beneath the statements are assumptions or inferences. Ask exploratory questions to gain a deeper understanding. Peel away the speaker’s fears and defenses by not being argumentative, defensive or immediately advocating what you believe is right.

Ask her if what you believe you heard is what she meant. Listening is not a competitive process; it is a relational one. It requires exploring another’s thinking with an open mind.

3. Try on another’s idea.Remember that we generally think in a reflexive manner, interpreting others’ statements in a way that fits what we believe. To counteract that, “try on” the other person’s idea or position. What would it mean to you if you believed what he believed? What would it feel like? Why do you feel that way? In many cases this process will lead to more exploration and conversation.

While these concepts are simple, Level II listening is hard; the challenge is in disciplining ourselves to do it every day. I recommend practicing frequently. First, use the common Level I behaviors to gauge where you are now. Then use the three steps to prepare a checklist of what to do and not do. Everyday before each important conversation, use the list to mentally prepare. Afterward, grade yourself. This will illuminate behaviors to analyze and change. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get to the next level right way. Level II takes time—I invite you to begin your journey.

Edward D. Hess is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and author of Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014).


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