Do you understand the difference between listening and active listening?

Do you feel listened to?

What’s more, are YOU a good listener? 

Studies show adults remember between 25 and 50 per cent of what they hear. So when you talk to your boss, colleagues, customers or spouse, they’re paying attention to less than half of the conversation.

Some of you – especially those who have been married for some time – may not be at all surprised by this.

Listening is more than just hearing

Active listening is a conscious effort to understand messages that are only partly about the words being said. As Peter Senge says:

“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… listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow our mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning.”

The Four Levels of Listening

Listeners vary in their sensitivity to speakers’ verbal and non-verbal signals. The potential for understanding, trust and effective communication increases as we move through the levels. In The New Art of Managing People the levels are categorised as:

Level 1 – Non-listeners tend to:
▪ do most of the talking
▪ interrupt the speaker
▪ show a lack of interest in the content of what they are hearing
▪ aim to have the last word

Level 2 – Marginal listeners tend to:
▪ focus on the bottom line, the facts, rather than the bigger picture
▪ give speakers the false impression they are being listened to and understood

Level 3 – Evaluative listeners tend to:
▪ hear what speakers say, but don’t look for the intent behind the words
▪ be more logical listeners; more concerned with content than feelings
▪ form opinions about the speakers’ words before the message is complete, risking not understanding the true meaning of the message

Level 4 – Active listeners
▪ through practice have reached the highest and most effective level of listening
▪ listen for content AND for the intent and feeling of the message

Listening is more powerful than agreeing

Work done by the Harvard Negotiation Project into conflict resolution shows that being listened to is valued more highly, and creates more rapport and trust, than being uniformly agreed with.

Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler, once said,

“I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions.”

Lee was slightly off the mark – there are workshops out there trying to teach “active listening.” You can always tell those alumni who have mastered the intense look, the leaning body language and occasional paraphrase of what the person is saying.

But adopting listening poses does not lead to better understanding and retention of the message.

Active listening starts with an attitude and mindset. It is about focus and deep understanding rather than facial expressions and head-nodding.

Four Steps to Mastering Active Listening

Being an active listener is not an innate gift – it is the result of practicing the following steps:

1. Pay attention
Give the speaker your undivided attention, and consciously banish distracting thoughts. Silence the voice in your head that starts to build counter arguments. Focus on being present. If you do this, you will not need “body language experts” to teach you active listening.

2. Be patient

Learn the power of the pause and don’t rush to fill the silence. Allow the other person an extra second to think. This often results in more information than any series of well-crafted questions.

3. Defer judgment
Our personal filters, assumptions and beliefs can distort what we hear. Listen to learn, instead of judge. Reflect what has been said: “What I’m hearing is….” and “Sounds like you are saying….”

4. Allow yourself to see and feel
Remember Senge’s speed of light concept and become attuned to the gestures AND emotions of the people you are listening to. Just as important, remain sensitive to how YOU are feeling and responding. Remember that the person you are listening to is watching you and deciding if they trust you enough to open up.

Keep these in mind and practice them and you will become a better listener. You will improve your ability to influence, persuade, negotiate and coach.

As a bonus, research shows that whilst speaking raises your blood pressure, focussed listening brings it down.

So listening really is truly good for you. And it makes you a better leader.

I’d love to know what strategies work for you in mastering the art of active listening. Have I missed anything?

I would highly recommend journal writing. I joined one of Moyra’s journal safari sessions a couple of weeks ago and have been keeping a daily journal ever since. The main benefits for me is it’s helped me to keep perspective in these times, not to be too hard on myself and be thankful for the things I have achieved.

Justin Ellis

Innovation & Strategy, British retail bank