Are you listening actively?

“We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak”

Attributed to two ancient philosophers: the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium (BC c.335 to c.262) and Epictetus (AD55 – c.135), one of its advocates.

Whichever one of them it was, their words seem as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago. In the 21st Century most of us in the western world are on information overload, bombarded on all sides by an onslaught of online and offline media; attempting to distinguish real news from fake and weed through celebrity gossip to find the quality information. Listening in this environment becomes something of a challenge. We have to zone out a great deal of ‘noise’.

In her book ‘The Coaching Manual’, Executive coach, Julie Starr, argues that there are four levels of  listening: cosmetic, conversational, active and deep.

I’m sure we can all recall an occasion when we’ve been guilty of what she calls ‘cosmetic’ listening, which is not listening at all. I personally wouldn’t want to be tested on the pros and cons of various makes, types and models of motorbikes, following a conversation with my elder brother!

At other times, when we are engaged in a discussion, we bring a degree of attention to our conversation partner. Often we are only partially listening, waiting for that person to finish their point, so that we can make ours. Ms Starr refers to this as ‘conversational’ listening.

It is only when we move into the realms of ‘active listening’ (and later ‘deep listening’) that we employ real intention and focus. The phrase ‘active listening’ was coined in the 1950s by clinical psychologist, Carl Rogers. He developed a person-centred approach to therapy, believing that human beings have an innate tendency “to find fulfilment of their own personal potentials”.

Collaborative coaching operates along similar lines, hence the importance of developing the skills of active, or even deep, listening in a coaching environment. According to Linguistics Professor Deborah Tannen, this is something that women do naturally in order to create empathy and achieve greater relationship depth. Clearly, whatever your gender,  if you spend a fair portion of your daily working life coaching clients or staff, active listening is worth investing time in to practise and master.

In fact, I believe this skill is important for anyone to develop. It can only be beneficial, personally and professionally. When participants are listening intently to each other in a meeting, their input is higher quality, enabling collaboration and true team work. Colleagues who experience this level of listening from each other feel respected and inspired by what arises from this level of interaction. The creative thinking it encourages is a valuable commodity, particularly in today’s business climate; any advantage gained in such a competitive market becomes critical for us to flourish.

Active listening requires the suspension of judgement, concerns and opinions. We need to remain as impartial as possible. Even on the days when your travel time was doubled due to a train delay or (common to those of us who are UK-based) leaves on the line!

Those irritations and frustrations must be set aside and your attention focussed on your conversation partner. Managing yourself and your emotions, staying fully present throughout, is extremely important. Bring your awareness to peripheral signs; what is behind what is being said, i.e. eye contact, posture and other elements of non-verbal communication. When you can provide this level of observation, you begin to hear the meaning behind the words.

Which brings us to the relationship between quality questioning and quality listening. If you are someone who interviews people or needs to regularly gather requirements, you know how critical it is to ask the right questions and listen intently to the answers. I worked for many years in a software development environment and learnt the hard way with one client. He was furious that their brief had been ignored by our Creative Director, who decided that his ideas were better, overriding the Account Director and client requirements. An expensive error!

Open questions work well when trying to elicit more detail, someone’s opinion or to build rapport e.g. “so what are you up to at the weekend?” Closed questions are good for concluding discussions or getting a decision made about something: “Do we all agree that these are the next steps, now that we’ve gathered the information we needed?”

If you don’t already use it, the Funnel Method of questioning can be useful in certain situations. It uses a combination of open and closed questions. Try the first exercise below to practise this skill. It can be used effectively to jog someone’s memory and to gradually gather detailed information.

Working with a partner, outline the context. Ask them about a time when, for example, they lost something valuable. Start with closed questions, e.g. ‘Were you on your own at the time?’ and ‘Did this happen recently?’ Graduate to more open questions, facilitating them to recall and paint a picture, e.g. “can you describe your surroundings?”  You might ask them to picture what they were wearing that day, who else was there, etc.  In this way, you help them visualise the scene and jog their memory. 

This second exercise is useful for practising and developing active – even deep – listening skills:-

Working with a friend or colleague, outline the context. Ask them to tell you about a challenge they are currently facing. When listening, pay attention not just to the words they use but also their use of eye contact, posture and any other cues from their body language that might provide more information than their words alone.

Record your questions, along with your thoughts arising from what you observe. Share these with them then explore how accurate your interpretations were. If appropriate, swap roles and share your feedback with your conversation partner.

The type of questioning you employ in various scenarios will depend on your objective, as with the type of listening you provide. It’s impossible to always listen intently, but when relevant the results can be extraordinary.