In my current course of study on executive leadership coaching at Georgetown’s Institute of Transformational Leadership, we have been discussing the age old art of listening and the skills required to listen well. Listening – that sometimes elusive art of getting out of your own head and really listening intently to the person you are talking to with a deep focus on the other person. Why is this such a difficult thing to do? If we are talking to one of our own employees, or a close friend, or even our spouse, why is it so challenging at times to really listen to them? Often half way through a conversation we find ourselves thinking that we really are not sure what the person has said at that point and all at once this mild fear comes over us that we may be quizzed on what was said (particularly if it’s your spouse of course). All at once we are embarrassed, feel a bit foolish, disappointed and frustrated at our inattention to what this person was saying. And then we think that if the roles were reversed, how very frustrated or even possibly angry we would be if we realized that the other person was not listening to something we were saying.
The art of listening is quite different from the science of hearing, with hearing as we know being the physical audible part of our ears, auditory process and brain. Listening however is the art of truly paying attention to what someone is saying to us, with a deep focus and obvious interest in exactly what that person is saying to us. We know that there are three levels of listening – Level 1, 2, and 3. Level 1 being exclusively in your own head and it’s all about me, often referred to as “Listen to me.” Level 2 being a focus on the other person, listening for language, assertions, emotion and energy, often referred to as “Listen to you.” Level 3 being really deeply listening to what’s happening between you and the other person – the vibe, the dynamic, the intuition and true insight of the conversation all reside here in Level 3. This is also called “Listening to us.” How often have we really wished we could just find a way to truly listen to another person in normal conversation? When we are working as leaders with our people or coaching a client in an executive coaching situation, we are focused on the employee or client and are truly at either Level 2 or 3. The same could be said when as leaders in the workplace and talking to an employee, peer, or superior about a project or problem, we know that we should be focused on that person, for the sake of their work or our performance in the workplace. But for some reason, the chaos of the day and various listening environments can lead us astray.
In the book “Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence,” by Brothers and Kumar, they discuss a method that really resonated with me and I have been working with lately. They suggest using the concept of “swing thoughts” in golf, whereby a golf instructor gives you a lesson and then teaches you to say several things to yourself regarding your technique as you walk up on the tee box to tee off. As you take the golf club back, you repeat these one or two thoughts to yourself in an effort to focus on the important technique items that are critical to improving your golf swing. Well a similar technique can work for listening skills when approaching a conversation with someone. As you approach the “tee box” or conversation setting, you need one or two “swing thoughts” to help you to quiet your inner conversation and focus on the other person. I have found myself saying several times, “quiet my inner voice,” “be still” or “focus.” These seem to help me quiet my own inner conversation, to focus on “listening to you or us” and not think about the next thing I might say in the conversation. Practicing this, like everything, makes this work and when you find yourself entering the conversation “tee box,” to really be intentional with the other person and be a true Level 2 or 3 listener. But you must practice this like everything else to get better. It must be a focus or a priority.
Improving your listening skills will absolutely pay big dividends, both as a leader who is recognized by his people as someone that really cares about them; and as a friend, relative or spouse who truly cares about the other person in the conversation. Everyone wants to be listened to in a sincere manner. Improving in this key aspect of the art of listening will be a huge payoff for all of us in our personal and professional relationships.