Recently I was helping facilitate a program on coaching for leaders, and on day 1 we spent quite a bit on time on the subject of listening.  You may wonder why, considering it’s something we do every day and most of us think we’re more than competent when it comes to this skill.

Think again.

“This is hard!”

“I keep wanting to butt in and offer my thoughts or advice.” 

I so appreciated the honesty and vulnerability from the participants.  The bottom line is that most of us are average at best when it comes to this skill.  And the problem is if you’re a leader looking to inspire and motivate your team to greatness, average just won’t cut it.

This reminds me of a story from many years ago.  I was speaking with someone who was known in the organization I was working for at the time to be a great leader.  A fantastic reputation, the kind of person people sought out to join their team.  So I asked this individual, what’s your secret.  I was expecting something magnanimous, something I’d never thought of before.

Some simple but not easy advice on listening

The response caught me by surprise. 

“I give whatever or whomever is in front of me 100% of my attention.”

I was underwhelmed to say the least.  But they were really on to something.  Because the reality of how we show up is often quite different. 

Let’s take the following scenario:  Someone pokes their head in your office – “Do you have a minute?”  They ask.

“Sure!” you say, wanting to sound interested and helpful.  You’re the boss that cares.  You’re approachable.  People like you.

They walk in and your eyes are still on the email you were in the middle of writing.  Your thoughts are still halfway consumed by it.  You’re unaware you’re doing this.  You’re halfway listening to what they’re expressing.  You’re nodding your head in agreement, eager to get back to your draft.  They leave and you carry on, you barely notice the interaction and later you forget all about it until they awkwardly remind you of what you’d agreed to in that moment. 

Listening isn’t an innate thing we can take for granted.  It’s a skill.  And just like any skill there is a methodology to it and we must practice it.

The levels of Listening

Level 1 – Halfway listening. 

In the previous example the manager I mentioned was listening at the equivalent of level 1.  They’re halfway there, they’re caught up in their head in something else.  They really didn’t have the time for the interaction but instead of setting a boundary and asking the person to please come back later, they acquiesce.  The result is they’re not present, they’re not tuned in, and the person on the receiving end of the conversation knows it.  The employee with the question leaves disengaged and slightly annoyed.  People know when they’re not being listened to.  Another version of level 1 is what I call the listening hijack.  “Oh wow, I know exactly what you’re saying!”  You interject, and then you go into a diatribe about your life and your experiences.  You may think the other person is engaged, but now they’re switched off too because you’ve made the interaction all about you.  Whoops.

Level 2 – Give me the facts and nothing but the facts. 

At this level you are tuning in.  Your nonverbals are signalizing interest, you’re looking at them.  You’re listening to the facts, the content of what the person is relaying to you.  You’re even checking in and acknowledging (repeating) back what you’re hearing.  “What I’m hearing you say is…”. “Let me play this back to you to make sure I got that right.”  Real connection is present and, the other person senses your engagement and interest in them and their issue.  This level is significantly better than level 1, and in many cases, this would suffice, but if you’re a leader looking to create a high performing team, you can’t just stop here.

Level 3 – Listening for Meaning. 

At this level you’re really tuning in.  Your nonverbals are focused, maybe you’re even leaning in if it’s a face-to-face interaction.  It’s more than just the facts or the context the other person is relaying.  You’re listening for their emotions.  You’re listening for what’s important to them.  You’re checking in and acknowledging more than just the facts of what you’re hearing.  “I get the sense that security is really important to you, and you’re worried about the effect this reorganization is going to have on the team, and your role.  That makes so much sense.”  You’re acknowledging back what you hear.  Maybe you’re even validating the underlying message, the meaning they’re trying to convey.  The more important conversations with your team warrant this level.  This is the level where engagement is either solidified or lost for good.  While every conversation might not be at this level, it’s important that as a leader you recognize the ones that matter and take the time to practice these skills.

Coaching questions for thought:

  • How would you rate the quality of your listening with your team?
  • Which of the skills do you need to practice the most?  Tuning in?  Acknowledging (repeating) back what you’re hearing?  Listening beyond facts for meaning?  Validating how the other person feels?
  • How would an improvement in this area change the quality of the interactions with your team and create more psychological safety?

Shelley Pernot is a leadership coach and career coach who is passionate about helping her clients discover their strengths and talents and step into their greatness.  Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!

I’ve recently been featured in Feedspot’s top 50 career coaching blogs.  Check out what other career coaching experts have to say here

  1. mom March 18, 2023 at 7:00 pm

    Great article!

  2. Coach John March 19, 2023 at 6:48 am

    Reading the blog post on the art of listening by True North Develop, I am reminded of the importance of active listening in building strong relationships. The blog provides insightful tips on how to become a better listener and truly understand others’ perspectives. I particularly appreciated the emphasis on nonverbal communication and being fully present in the moment when engaging in conversations.

  3. Ian March 19, 2023 at 6:21 pm

    Yes! So true! We usually think that Level 2 is the target, but Level 3 is where it’s at… thanks for the mental framework on this!