3 Levels of Good Listening

December 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

In my recent post “You’re not Michael Jordan…Nor Steve Jobs” I made my feelings clear about the value of listening.  I believe that listening is a critical skill for any successful entrepreneur or executive. Because it is so important, listing is a topic that I spend a lot of time thinking about.  What I have concluded is that being a great listener takes a lot of effort.

The Three Levels of Good Listening:

While I am certainly not formally trained nor have been educated about this skill, based on my observations and deep thought, I believe there are three Levels of a good listener.

Level 1: Tactically hearing what was said.

This level is easy to understand because it is what most people think of when defining listening.  This level is defined as one’s ability to process what a person said and recall it later.  Did my wife say to pick up, “eggs, milk, butter and bread”?  or was the last item “coffee”?  This level is well understood.  You either can comprehend and recall or you can’t.  For me to be successful with this skill, I need the right listening environment.  Meaning, I need to start the conversation focused on what the speaker has to say.  If my mind is distracted (either by football on TV or mentally iterating on a business problem), you have no chance in having a successful conversation with me.  I know this is a flaw of mine.  So does my lovely wife.  When she wants my attention, we overtly turn the TV or remove any distractions.  Kind of embarrassing that my mind is so simple, but I need the right listening environment to be successful at recall.

Level 2: Listening to what people mean, rather than what is said.

Communication is hard.  Emotions get in the way.  Confusion over diagnosing root cause also makes it hard to properly communicate.  Speakers often don’t have the full picture and rarely take the time to gather details.  The upshot is that most people are terrible communicators.  Often people can’t quite describe why they feel a certain way, but they certainly know if a solution is put in place or not.  I believe that the key to being a good communicator is not responding to what is directly said.  Rather, listening and thinking about what is being said.  Then ask yourself:

  • Why do they feel this way?
  • Is there something else that is driving this?
  • Does what they say jive with the elements that I understand?  Or am I missing something?

After thinking about what is said, I often try to ask the speaker clarifying questions.  Asking questions not only helps me understand, but also it tends to diffuse the emotions.  Two suggestions:

  1. Read body language.  If body language doesn’t match up to words, then you know there is a disconnect between what is being said and what is meant.
  2. Toyota’s Production System has a famous “5 Whys” principle.  TPS states that you can’t get to the true root cause of a problem without asking “why” 5 times.  Try it some time.  You’ll like it.  It works.

Level 3: Pro-actively seeking a listening opportunity

In my opinion, this is the hardest practice to achieve.  This requires setting up processes and an approach that engages those around you to gather input before someone feels overly compelled to speak up.  You have to be humble and confident to do this well.  You also have to really embrace feedback.  You have to understand that feedback only makes you better.

The best business leaders that I know are masters at this skill.  They treat feedback as valuable.  They recognize feedback as the way to achieve the best end result.  They not only actively seek feedback, but really think about it when it comes in.  People around them know that they can make change by making suggestions, because the leader will listen and adopt good ideas.  They set up organizational processes to solicit feedback.  They call on people in meetings who haven’t raised hands.  They walk over to someone’s desk and ask “how are things going?”  They grab a coffee with someone without a prompt.  They read body language.

This level is hard to do and takes a lot of work and patience.

My personal efforts to be a good listener

Listening is such a critical skill.  However, it is also a skill that is very hard to achieve greatness in.  I constantly think about my listening and often have epic fails.  Sometimes I fail as a listener to my wife, my closest friends and my teammates…i.e. the people whom I love the most.  My personal challenge is that I have to be ready to listen to be successful.  If a football game is on, you have no chance of having a good conversation.  At work, I need to close my lap top (or put my iPhone away) to focus on the speaker.  If my laptop is open, I get distracted by numerous sources and my mind wonders.

I also make an overt effort to bring feedback into our organization.  I have set up an amazing advisory board and constantly solicit feedback.  I try to ask my teammates for feedback.  Feedback on our product, on our process or on me personally.  Whenever I have a year-end performance review of a teammate, I always ask “what can I do to be a better boss?”  It is an odd question since the rest of the reviews are about the teammate’s performance.  However, I get really good feedback.  It also let’s the teammate know that I recognize that the issues are not all their fault.

Great listening is hard to achieve.  So I work on it.  I constantly work on it….please let me know how I am doing.

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