COMMUNICATION SKILLS Pin Back Those Ears – How to nail a key leadership skill

The ability to really listen is wond-rous gift. Wrapped up in socialised attitudes and values developed through life experience, the ability to tune into the thoughts and feelings of others pays rich dividends. Listening leaders gain feedback on how they are being perceived, learn how their team members are working, build positive team culture, engage with their team members, and encourage the expression of new ideas and innovative thinking.
Ironically, in the past, people were not taught how to listen; they were simply told to do it. So for most, it develops as an unconscious skill. Right from childhood, listening habits spring from many sources. What, for example, was the listening protocol in the home? What, if any, listening training do people receive at school or in the workplace?
When taught to listen, people learn to avoid interrupting, make eye contact, pay attention to the speaker, give feedback in the form of acknowledgement, ask questions to encourage the speaker to continue and ask questions to clarify understanding. Yet effective listening is far more than these technical, observable actions.

The traditional approach
In his publication The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes five levels of listening:
1 Ignoring – not listening or hearing at all.
2 Pretending – looking like listening, but the mind is elsewhere.
3 Selective listening – hearing only certain parts of the conversation.
4 Attentive listening – paying attention and focusing energy on the words being spoken.
5 Empathic listening – listening with empathy and the intent to understand, to get inside the speaker’s frame of reference and see the world as they see it.
At levels two and three, it’s most likely that the speaker will be aware of any pretence or selective listening. To move on to level four the listener will need to consciously turn off their inner dialogue, clear their mind, and make way for the incoming message. While this may sound simple, it is not necessarily easy.
At level five the listener engages their ears and their heart to hear the unspoken – identifying the emotions underlying the speaker’s message. “In empathic listening,” says Covey, “you listen with your ears, but also, and more importantly, with your eyes and heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behaviour. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.” It is vital, he says, that the person listening opens themselves up to be influenced.
While some people shift directly to level five, others can benefit from learning specific active and reflective listening techniques.

How to listen actively
Progress begins when the listener closes their mouth. Apart from the rapport-building comments at the start of the conversation, your contribution as listener is simply to listen and show the speaker that’s what you are doing. Physically, do the following:
• Face the speaker.
• Maintain comfortable eye contact.
• Lean slightly forward towards the speaker (being mindful of their inter-personal comfort zone).
• Have relaxed and open posture.
• Make encouraging responses that indicate you’re listening.
• Do whatever else you can to build rapport with the person, apart from talking.
When the speaker finishes talking, ask any clarifying questions. Then paraphrase what you understood them to have said. Use your own words to check. At the end of your paraphrase you could say, “That’s what I thought you said – have I got it right, or is there something different?” Then wait. You will get response of some sort from the speaker – either, “yes”, “yes, but …”, or “no”. Generally with “yes, but…” and “no” responses the speaker will go on to provide more information. You simply listen. Then, once again, paraphrase. Continue doing this until you get firm “yes”. Often you’ll notice either subtle or significant physiological shift with the yes and no responses. If you observe closely you’ll also see things like: head nodding, relax back into their seat; lean forward towards you sitting up stronger; and sometimes there is arm movement with all of these. Their body will tell you when you’ve got it right and when you need to start listening again.
People often mistake getting the person to speak more with active listening. In active listening, the goal is to truly hear and understand what is concerning the speaker. So if you find yourself asking questions to ‘lubricate’ the conversation, or even adding bits of your own then you’re not active listening – you’re having conversation. If you ask questions to check or clarify your understanding once the speaker has stopped talking, you are listening actively.

How to listen reflectively
This is the same as active listening until the paraphrasing stage. Then, as much as possible, use the speaker’s words and phrases to summarise what you’ve heard. This is more powerful, as words have their own individual meaning and emotion for each of us. If you use your words, they may not ring true for the speaker.
Underlying both of these techniques is the openness of the listener to be influenced and their intention to make the speaker feel heard. Especially when there is some level of emotional commitment or frustration in the situation, the speaker is not open to influence until they have released their pent-up energy. This happens when they have their say and they feel as if they’ve been heard accurately. Only then is it possible (no guarantees) to influence them in any way.

Emerging levels of listening
A new school of thought is arising from the Society for Organisational Learning (SOL), involving Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline and The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook), C Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski (Synchronicity) and Betty Sue Flowers. Their thinking is captured in their book, Presence: An exploration of profound change in people, organizations and society.
Scharmer has an aligned model that identifies four levels of listening:
Politeness – The I-ego stage. This is the downloading state of listening where people are ‘talking nice’ in conversations that are centred on themselves.
Debate – The I-it stage. The seeing/hearing state of listening where people ‘talk tough’ with conversations centred on issues.
Inquiry – The I-thou stage. The sensing and inquiring state of listening where people engage in reflective dialogue out of deep sense of respect for each other.
Flow – The I-now stage. The presencing state of listening, the place of generative dialogue where new thinking and precepts emerge.
Listeners wanting to shift up the levels of listening on this emerging model learn to listen to their own heart. Physiologically, the neural centre in the heart sends signal to the emotional centre of the brain – it’s the heart that triggers an emotional state and the brain responds to that signal. By learning to listen to your heart and with your heart, you’ll connect at the inquiry and flow levels of listening. Simple, practical steps:
• Pause.
• Take few deep breaths, relax, put your focus on your out (relaxing) breath.
• As much as you are able, still and calm your mind.
• Put your attention around your heart.
• Imagine place that is calm and peaceful for you.
• If you have question you are pondering, ask yourself the question then wait.
• Remember to place your attention around your heart.
• Then wait, an answer will come to you.
Best of all, managers and leaders can constantly experiment with the skill of listening. After all, no one knows when you’re practising.

Next Steps

• Listening: The Forgotten Skill by Madelyn Burley-Allen.
• The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Peter Senge, Art Kleiner, Charlotte Roberts, Rick Ross & Bryan Smith. Particularly Chapter 33: Mental models.
• Presence: An exploration of profound change in people, organizations and society by Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski & Betty Sue Flowers.
• The Power of F

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