As a coach and consultant, I have clients ask me, “How can I learn to be a better communicator?” My response is usually not what they anticipate when I reply, “By being a better listener!” They probably expected a response along the lines of “speak up and share more,” “use fewer words to get your point across,” “use language your audience will understand,” “tell a compelling story,” or “get to your point quickly.”
American culture is predominately individualistic, where “I” is valued over “we”, “extrovert” is thought more highly of than “introvert”, and where direct language is practiced in lieu of high-context communication in which pauses and gestures convey more meaning than the words themselves. Although most people would agree that communication is a skill that can be improved upon, most training tends to focus on how to speak more intentionally, powerfully, and persuasively, so the message is clearly heard, accurately understood, and elicits action. The reality? Although people spend more time listening than talking, surprisingly, they are on average about 25% effective at listening (Burley-Allen, 1995).
Your first thought is probably, “that sounds low,” and your next thought may be, “I’m a much better listener than average.” Whether that second thought is true, everyone can benefit from learning how to listen better. What are the benefits of good listening? Good listening leads to greater leadership, because good listeners forge strong relationships built on respect, trust, rapport, and validation, which in turn enables these leaders to influence others.
Good listening is not about hearing! Listening is a sophisticated process that has not only multiple levels but also requires different skills and energy to achieve the highest level. Burley-Allen (1995) describes three distinctive levels of listening:
- Level 1: tuning in/out; follows conversation only to talk; not responsive; judgmental
- Level 2: hearing content but not the feelings; not focused on the intent
- Level 3: empathetic listening; nonjudgmental; acknowledging; responsive
Most people routinely practice either Level 1 and 2 listening in their daily lives; whereas, great leaders are adept at Level 3 listening. Good listeners have strong abilities to accurately receive and retain information, sustain their full attention through dialogue, attend to their own words, and encourage the other person to continue the conversation (Zhafir, 2000). As an empathetic listener, common skills you could practice include:
- Paraphrase back the major ideas of the message and the underlying feelings of the speaker, so s/he can confirm you understood them accurately. You can say, “I hear the excitement in your voice when…” or “I can see the pain in your face when…”
- Be attentive. Eliminate physical distractions (phone calls, internet surfing) and clear your mind of internal distractions.
- Do not interrupt. Allow the speaker the space and time to fully express her/himself.
- Listen without judgment. Empathetic listening does not require you to agree with statements or opinions but only to validate the speaker and his/her feelings. Refrain from personal comments. Ask questions for clarification.
- Do not give advice. Instead, ask the speaker questions so s/he can figure out the problem and its solution.
- Encourage by giving feedback. A speaker will know you are listening when you briefly respond with noncommittal acknowledgements (uh-huh, hum, I see) and head-nodding.
- Affirm by using your body language. Appropriate facial expressions, leaning towards the person, and eye contact provide feedback to the speaker that you are interested.
Empathetic listening is not only a core coaching tool but also a powerful leadership tool. When people believe their leaders are listening to them, they develop a conscious desire to listen in return. When leaders listen, people are open to influence, which is where change begins to happen. I can’t recall a great leader who wasn’t also a great listener. Leaders are not great because of what they say, but in how they make you feel. Empathetic listening makes you feel validated, respected, and open to being enthusiastically led.
My brief story demonstrates how a great leader can even impactfully use the word “listen.” In 1989, I was a young engineer working on a strategic project with a director within my division at Mobil Chemical. We were to evaluate and recommend whether the company should invest capital to manufacture the components of passenger car engine oils to sell to our parent company, Mobil Oil. Tony Kam and I were to present the findings to Phil Matos, President of Mobil Chemical. As I waited nervously for Phil and his team to join us in the conference room, I wondered about his demeanor and temperament. When Phil entered, he walked towards me, introduced himself, and extended his hand, which I firmly clasped. He then surprised me by cupping his other hand over mine and said, “I’m looking forward in listening to what you have to share with us today.” Most people usually say,” I look forward in hearing what you have to say.” His handshake and choice of the word “listen” versus “hear” were powerful and remain etched in my memory. Regardless of the vast difference in our salary grades, I can honestly say, that I would have followed him in any direction he wanted to go.
I am sure everyone has a personal reflection involving a person they would emphatically follow. What characteristics does that leader have that draws you into being led? Although leaders typically have several powerful attributes, I would guess that one of those characteristics would likely be in how s/he made you feel, which probably came through empathetic listening. Empathetic listening is one of the greatest gifts one person can give to another. The good news? Great listening is a skill that can be learned.
Burley-Allen, M. (1995). Listening: The forgotten skill: A self-teaching guide (2nd ed.). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Zhafir, R. (2000). The zen of listening: Mindful communication in the age of distraction. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books
About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a professional coach, consultant, and mentor with an extensive background in business development, and leadership which provides her with the experience, relational skills, and proven processes to move individuals, couples, and leaders to higher levels of personal awareness, effectiveness, and goal achievement. She coaches in a variety of areas including leadership, life purpose/plans, business, finances, and premarital/marriage.