The ladder of listening

Speaker on the wall

The world is going through a very significant shift.

Listening may be more important than ever right now and in the current circumstances, it can be even more of a challenge, as the number of physical cues are less readily available in the virtual setting.

Many of us are still going through the Change Curve and finding our feet with the idea of working from home, or remotely, for the foreseeable future. Cue now, we are about to start the change again, as many offices prepare to reopen.

So as colleagues and managers, perhaps now is a good time to reflect on our listening skills and approaches in order to get the best out of each other, while being remote.

The 5 levels of listening

Some years ago, I came across my first golden nugget of learning regarding listening; the 5 basic levels of listening. Consider it like a ladder, for me, the higher the rung, the more focus and dedication each level requires.

So, as we go through them in more detail, take a moment to consider your position on the ladder. Where do you spend most of your time? How does it impact your friends, family and colleagues? Are you putting in the necessary time and effort required?

Let’s look at the 5 levels. They are;

  1. Not listening at all / Ignoring
  2. Pretending to listen
  3. Selective listening 
  4.  Attentive listening 
  5. Empathic listening 

So, let’s look in a bit more detail.

Level 1: Not listening at all/Ignoring

Pre-Covid, when my wife and I would get home from work, I would say as a dutiful husband, “How was your day?” and she would start to tell me about it. I found myself turning down the volume on her to zero; I would sometimes just check out (not very proud to admit this!). So it didn’t even look  like I was listening. It’s quite a skill – to tune out from listening to the person you love.

She got wise to it however, and because she is incredibly patient with me, she started saying, “I’ll tell you again and this time you have the opportunity to listen.” I did.

Do you find yourself doing this? Being physically present with someone, or virtually together, but mentally checking out so their words just pass straight through you?

Level 2: Pretending to listen

Have you ever been in a conversation where the other person is only pretending to listen to you? Do they wait for the pauses in your sentences to throw in a “Yeah. Uh huh. Definitely” or similar? Do you sometimes find yourself doing this?

This is the second rung on the ladder; pretending to listen. It is one up from the rung before, so this time you give verbal cues to keep up the pretense that you are listening, when really, you couldn’t repeat a word they just said.

Level 3: Selective listening

Picture this; you’re sat in a meeting, your colleagues have been talking about figures and targets for the last twenty minutes and you have zoned out. Then you hear, “So, let’s move on to this year’s bonuses,” and you snap back to attention.

This is called selective listening. We pick out the bits of the conversation that most interest us, or will have the greatest impact, and the rest fades to white noise.

How often do you find yourself selective listening? Are there some situations where you practice it more than you should, perhaps?

Level 4: Attentive listening

Attentive listening is being completely focused and undistracted, taking on board everything that the other person has to say, paying attention to details and processing the information.

This is also where we often find ourselves listening to reply; formulating what we want to say in response to the other person before they have even finished speaking. It is in this listening mode that we look to form our defenses, and comebacks, based on the information presented to us at the time. So when we are processing and thinking of answers and counter arguments we are missing some of the messaging coming at us.

Level 5: Empathic listening

This is the top rung of the ladder, the highest level of listening one can achieve and also the largest investment in terms of energy and time.

Empathic listening is opening a pathway between you and the other person, hearing the cues in their voice, allowing for exploration of meanings and feelings as well as fact and information.Rather than steering a conversation – just go where it takes you with them. Enjoy the journey and immerse yourself to really get the most from talking with others. When we do we might find out extraordinary, important or insightful stuff. At least we will have shown them that we truly are invested in the relationship.

It is a true conversation, full of checking back and reacting to what is being said in a meaningful way; whilst being truly empathic with the other person.

Final thoughts

There you have it; the ladder of listening.

So, here’s our challenge for you; start paying attention to how much you listen.

How often do you check out? How often do you pretend to be listening? How do you respond to the times where you need to be in the moment; putting everything to one side and give just 5 minutes to really understand how the other person feels?

And what results do you get when you really listen?

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