If there were one skill you could improve to become a better communicator, to be liked more and respected way more, to accomplish more, and to waste a whole lot less time, would you be willing to invest in it? ‘Cause I can tell you what it is—it’s listening. I spend hundreds of hours observing leaders interacting with one another every year and the one skill that would make 90% of them more effective is if they could become better listeners.

Yeah, yeah, Liane. I know. But I’m a great listener.

Really? Are you?

Can you get over the hurdles in all three of my Listening Levels?

Step right up…

Why You’re Not Listening

Listening Level I—The Basics

There is a lot of behavior that’s being passed off as listening. You don’t get to count it as listening just because your mouth is shut. How well do you do at getting over these Level I hurdles? Do any of these stumbling blocks to effective listening trip you up?

  • I look at the person and get caught up in their physical appearance, gestures, and body language, and lose track of what they’re saying.
  • I pay attention to what the person is saying but I drop my eye contact and miss their non-verbal cues.
  • I nod and say “uh-huh,” but I’m distracted by my phone.

How’d you do? What percentage of the time are you attending fully to the discussion? If you haven’t mastered the basics, you’ve got no hope at the next level. Stop and work on these until listening with your full, undivided attention is second nature.

Listening Level II—Intermediate

If you’ve mastered Level I and you’re fully present, you can move on to overcoming the next set of hurdles that get in the way of effective listening.

Level II is about how much of the information the person is conveying you are able to pick up. There are so many ways you can get tripped up at this level.

  • I’m an objective thinker and I focus on the facts and sometimes miss the emotional tenor of what the person is saying.
  • I take everything the person says at face value and don’t read between the lines to pick up clues of their motives or what they value.
  • I’m highly empathetic and if the person is distressed, I’m distracted from what they’re saying by their emotional state.
  • I don’t seem to pick up on it when people are being sarcastic or ironic or using language in nuanced ways.

Of all the information the person is sending, including the facts they convey, the words they choose, their pitch and tone, their gestures and mannerisms, what percentage do you think you’re getting?

Level II is about receiving and comprehending as much of the person’s meaning and intent as possible.

Listening Level III—Advanced

Now, this is where it gets hard (as if Levels I & II weren’t hard enough). Once you’re able to really tune in to the message the person is sending, now the hurdles are much higher.

There are all sorts of ways your brain is taking you out of the present moment and reducing your ability to listen, even when you feel like you’re sitting up straight and paying attention. The Level III hurdles include:

  • Anticipating: While the person is talking, I get ahead of them and think about where they’re going. I rush it. I lose touch with where they are and get carried away with where they’re going.
    The tell: My head bobs up and down like a mad person. The speed of my reassuring nods is in no way synced with the pace at which the person adds new ideas.
  • Judging: I react, evaluate, decide whether I think what they’re saying is right or wrong, good or bad. I leave them and get into my own thought process.
    The tell. My eyeballs roll.
  • Rebutting: I start to craft my response while they’re talking. I think about how to phrase it. I figure out how to say it so nicely that they can only agree.
    The tell: I hold my eye contact way too long. I smile gleefully in anticipation of my coup de grace.
  • Defending: I interpret what the person is saying as an attack. My heart races and my palms sweat. I move into self-protection mode. I feel the fight or flight response kick in.
    The tell: I turn red. I lean in, preparing for battle.
  • Rationalizing: I tell myself it’s ok. It’s not so bad. I have all sorts of good reasons for why what they’re saying isn’t true, or if it’s true, why it doesn’t really matter.
    The tell: I cross my arms. I turn my body away from the person.
  • Competing I think, YES! I’m with you. That happened to me too, but worse! I take their plight and raise it one better. I get impatient for them to stop talking because I know they’re going to LOVE my story!
    The tell: I get all excited and start to vibrate a little. I bounce in my chair.
  • Identifying: I relate deeply to their story. I feel so much empathy. I think of all the ways that their experience is just like mine. I get wrapped up in my own story, rather than staying with theirs.
    The tell: I get kinda’ doe-eyed. A bit misty.

Liane's Listening Block

Here they are in a pin-up version if you want to keep it close at hand. Click the poster to download.

The Level III hurdles are profoundly challenging because they are natural. Overcoming them is a lifetime’s work, much like mindfulness. Your mind will wander down one of these paths almost every time you listen to someone. The question is how long it takes you to notice and how quickly you come back to listening fully.

Wanna know what trips me up every time? It’s identifying. I am such a people person that I am constantly looking for ways to relate my experience to that of others. I have good intentions. I’m usually preparing to say something to try to make them feel less awkward (“You feel that? I feel that TOO!”) or to give them a pep talk about how they shall overcome (“I went through that too. It was awful. You’ll get through it!). Every moment that I’m relating, identifying, sympathizing, and reassuring, is a moment that I’m not listening to. It’s a moment I’m putting my experience above theirs. It’s an awful habit and one that I’m working hard to ditch. Oh, and I have a tell, too. It’s the empathetic head tilt.

Listening Practice

If you want to get better at listening and better at getting over these hurdles that get in the way, you’re going to need to do a few things.

  1. Slow down. When a conversation is rushed, it’s hardly ever possible to listen effectively. Try to leave a second or two of silence between people speaking.
  2. Pass with care. Don’t add a new point before saying something to confirm that you heard the other person’s point accurately.
  3. Impose the do-over. If you don’t get confirmation that you received the message correctly, ask the person to rephrase their comments and try again.
  4. Deputize others. Enlist your colleague’s help by telling them you’re working on this and to help you identify any moments when you need to refocus on listening.

When you get good at listening—Level III good—you’ll be amazed at how much less time you waste, how much more people value you, and how much more frequently you can get things done right the first time.

Where are you in your listening during your average meeting? Still getting distracted by Level I hurdles? Working to avoid Level II hurdles to take in more and more meaning? Or exasperated by how hard it is to overcome the Level III hurdles that your brain seems to be putting up faster than you can cope with?

Let me know.

Further Reading

Liane’s Back to Basics Listening Drill

How to go faster

Are you a good listener?

Video: But Are You REALLY Listening?