Listening: The BIG Link to Your People & Reality
Well hello again, it’s Brian Bratti of Bratti Innovation Group, bringing you another installment in the BIG Leadership Series. We’re focusing on Leading Others, the idea that is commonly associated with the word leadership. Last time we focused on how Defining Reality was a BIG Leadership responsibility. This time we’ll focus on one of the leadership tools that is absolutely essential to helping a leader effectively define and face that reality both inside and outside of the organization and that’s Listening – The BIG Link to Your People & Reality.
When I googled the word “listening” I received 345,000,000 results or hits. Obviously, there’s a lot of information out there on the subject of listening so there’s no way I can encompass all of that into this one article. Fortunately, I don’t have to do that since we all intuitively know that it just makes good sense to be a good listener. Yet, we also know that we can all fall short of the good listening mark from time to time. For example, I have two sons I love very much and can proudly say I’ve spent a lot of quality time investing in their lives. I can probably count on one hand the number of important events they’ve had that I’ve missed and that’s because I made being an intentional father a very high priority.
That said, I have also had my less than stellar parent listening moments. I recall on one occasion when my youngest son was very young (around three or five years old) and I completely dropped the listening ball. We were sitting on the sofa in our upstairs playroom and he was telling me something about his day. Being a young (and sometimes clueless) father with a million of things on my mind at the time, I recall that I was giving him very little attention, looking off in another direction and responding to his story with the obligatory “aha, mmm, yup.” However, this smart little guy was not going to let me get away with this lack of attention. When it dawned on him that he was the only person present in this dialogue, he literally came up beside me, put both hands on either side of my face, physically turned it toward his, looked me straight in the eye and said quite plainly “Dad, I am talking to you.” That was a highly effective method by which to bring awareness and conviction of my lack of listening in that situation. There was no doubt in my mind that I was not being a good listener.
Now, let’s be clear, I’m not advocating that you and your team adopt the face grabbing technique to improve your listening skills (although that would be kind of amusing to say the least). What I am saying is that there are ways to improve our listening skills that will hopefully grab our attention in a more figurative sense as we look at just how important listening is for a leader. And for some guidance, I’m going back to the book “Leadership Gold” by John Maxwell for a few insights.
John maintains (and I agree) that we all tend to think we are better listeners than we really are (especially if you’re a dad of a young child). That, in my opinion, is the beginning of awareness for becoming a better listener. If we start out with the premise that we are probably not very good listeners or at least not as good as we think we are, we now have the initial self-awareness necessary to become intentional about improving our listening skills so we can add value to our teams, organizations and even our families. Like my young son, your team needs to know that you are listening to them so you can not only be more effective with them but also so you can learn more about what they know concerning the problems they are facing in your organization and what’s going on in your business environment. All of this requires intentional, active and effective listening.
Now, at this point, I know what some of you are thinking and that’s the idea that some people are just naturally better listeners than others. I agree with this. For example, I have found that introverts tend to be much better listeners than extroverts because they are gifted with the ability to think internally before they speak as opposed having to sort out their thoughts out loud. However, as an extroverted Executive Coach whose primary job is to listen intently to his clients, I can attest that over time, with self-awareness, hard work and discipline, anyone can become a highly effective listener. So there’s really no excuse to not improve in this skill. My efforts in becoming a better listener have enabled me to help my clients sort out their issues, put definite plans in place for success, be accountable for those plans and become more effective in their lives. Therefore, I strongly believe that listening is very much like a muscle in your physical body. The more you intentionally work it, the stronger it becomes and the more effective you become with your team. However, to have an effective listening regimen, you need to understand the different levels of listening.
While opinions differ on how many levels of listening there are, my executive coach training and experience have led me to conclude that there are roughly 4 levels of listening.
THE FOUR LEVELS OF LISTENING
- Level 0 - The Absent-Minded Level of Listening: Years ago Disney came out with a movie called “The Absent Minded Professor” that featured a brilliant professor who simply struggled with acknowledging the reality around him because he was singularly focused on his own inventions, thoughts, ideas, etc. I call this level “Absent Minded” because, like the professor in the movie, your mind is absent from the interaction with those around you who are trying to communicate with you. I also put this first level at a Level 0 because it’s really not listening at all but trying to cover up not listening with pleasantries and false pretenses. That’s what I tried to do with my young son. I failed miserably. And I have news for you, if you’re doing this with your people, you are too.
At this level of listening, you’re really just pretending to listen to someone but you’re actually focusing solely on something else that interests you more and doesn’t involve them at all. Your goal at this level of listening is to endure what you deem to be background static noise from the other person hoping that they take as little of your time as possible so you can retreat back to your own personal agenda and thoughts. Now, if we are to be brutally honest, this level of listening is really a form of disrespect and self-centeredness. It’s really not fair to the other person and yet, it’s something we all do from time to time. So what can we do to counteract this easy trap? First, it helps to have the self-awareness that we all do this and that we probably do it more than we should. If you know you are engaging in this lack of listening then you can stop yourself and decide to do something different by taking two simple steps. First, after it dawns on you that you’re behaving like the Absent-Minded Professor, simply apologize to the other person for not paying attention to them. Fortunately, this faux pax is easily forgivable, probably because everyone is guilty of it from time to time. Second, either decide to start paying attention to the other person by employing one of other levels of listening that I’ll outline in a moment or ask if you can pick up the conversation at a later time when you are able to devote full attention to that person. This way, you not only give the other person the respect they deserve but you also give yourself the option of whether or not to go forward in the conversation in a polite manner. By giving the Absent-Minded Level of Listening this one-two punch, you stand a better chance of building rapport and respect with others on your team and increasing your active listening self-awareness.
- Level 1 - The Burning Building Level of Listening: This is when you are receiving information from another person but are primarily focused on how the information affects you causing you to focus your thoughts on how you will respond when you get the chance to talk or act. This is a form of listening that probably takes place more than it should. Now to be fair, I think there are perfectly valid reasons to engage in this level of listening. Imagine that you trying to escape from a burning building (hence the reason for the label) and you encounter a person in the building (like a firefighter) who is instructing you on how to safely exit the building. In that situation, I believe it is perfectly appropriate to focus only on how that person’s information affects you and you’d be wise to follow his or her instructions quickly. A less severe example is when you ask a person for directions, a librarian how to find a book or resource, etc. In those situations, the focus is on you and that can be perfectly acceptable. The other person doesn’t and shouldn’t have any expectation beyond providing you information other than a thank you.
The problem is that some leaders adopt the Burning Building Level of Listening to almost all interactions with their team. Because deadlines are real and the need for results create pressure, it’s easy to regard those who report to you as just a means to an end and thus employ the Burning Building Listening Level day in and day out, especially if your company is being run like a burning building (which should not be the case but that’s a subject for another day). Overuse of the Burning Building Level will erode and potentially destroy the trust, rapport and a strong team dynamic that’s required for you to achieve the results of which you and your team are capable. If people believe their leader views them as the functional equivalent of the Google GPS voice on their phones, existing solely for the leader’s benefit, I can assure you that sooner or later that leader will become isolated and frustrated, involved in expensive and time consuming remedial Human Resource tasks not the least of which is having to constantly find and train new employees due to high turnover. Want to engage with your team more effectively? Leave the Google GPS voice on your phone, save this level of listening for actual burning building or solely information gathering situations and become intentional about bringing your level of listening up a notch or two with your people.
- Level 2 – The Connection Level of Listening: This next level of listening is more other person focused and helps them to not only relay information to you but also creates a stronger connection between you and them. This and the next level of listening is where I spend nearly all of my time with my clients and thus can assure you that both require a lot of intentionality and discipline to not only reach these listening levels but to also stay at them. At this level, you put your own thoughts and agenda to the side and focus solely on what the other person is saying. You’re not just waiting for you turn to speak. You are genuinely interested in the other person and what they are saying. You use effective communication techniques like parroting back what they are saying (be careful with this because it can get annoying if overused) so you can be sure what you are hearing is what the other person intends to convey by repeating what you’ve heard and asking them to either confirm or correct your understanding. This level of listening not only helps you understand the message for your own purposes but also validates the other person by showing that they are being heard in a meaningful way which establishes a valid connection between you and the other person. This makes the transfer of information more effective because rapport has been built. The benefit for you at this level is that you stand a much better chance of receiving correct facts and information and improving your relationships with those around you, especially the team over which you are leading. The benefit to your team is that they will feel heard and valued. If you want to take your listening and functional team dynamics to the next level, ratchet it up to The Connection Level of Listening.
- Level 3 – The Intuitive Level of Listening: In my opinion, this level is not only the highest level of listening but it is also the hardest. It’s highest because you are really focusing on the other’s person’s highest good by relying on your intuition, that gut feeling that arises in relationships only after you’ve invested meaningful time at the Connection Level of listening with your team. This is the level where your intuition tells you the meaning behind the words you are hearing. It occurs when a person says something but you instinctively feel there is either dissonance or harmony between what they are saying and your understanding of them as a person. Thus, you probe further not merely for your own personal understanding but more so to help them. You’re interested in their highest good, so that’s why it’s the highest level of listening. It’s also the hardest level of listening because it takes time and effort. You simply have to take more time and personal interest in the other person to get to this level. This is the listening level to which I strive when I am in coaching relationships with my clients because it is at this level of listening that I believe I can fully help them become the leader and person they are meant to be. And, because I think a vital part of effective leadership is being able to coach your team, I likewise believe that striving to become a more intuitive listener of your people is absolutely essential for you as a leader. Therefore, if you want to power-up your leadership and listening skills to their maximum effectiveness, try working on your intuitive listening skills as you interact with your team. It will show your people you highly value them and give you the information that you need to be the leader you are meant to be.
Do you need some help in trying to develop your leadership and listening skills? Would Executive Coaching or Communication Training for you and your team help you and them become more effective and successful? I stand ready to help you achieve BIG Results so drop me a line. Either way, I’d love to hear from you.
Well, that’s all I have for now. I hope this article is being a blessing to you in a BIG way. Take care and stay tuned for my next installment of the BIG Leadership Series.