We’ve all heard the saying, “we have two ears and one mouth”, and that we should use them in the same proportion.
True as that may be, does talking less automatically make for a better listener? To answer this question properly, let’s briefly explore the “Three Levels of Listening”, and how much value can be created or destroyed by our mastery of the skill called listening.
Level One: Listening to respond. We’ve all been there. You hear your co-worker or friend say something, and it takes everything in us not to interrupt so that we can reply, compare notes, or maybe even ‘one-up’ their story with our own, clearly better anecdote.
Level One Listening is the lowest form of listening, if it can even be considered listening. Any conversational value, or any potential deepening of the relationship, goes out the window when we show that our only real interest is in talking about ourselves. Furthermore, while we are trying not to interrupt, and trying not to forget what we are going to say next – what are we not doing? Listening to everything the other person has said since the first point they made that we’re waiting to reply to!
If we agree that Level One is at best impatience, and at worst, low level maturity and even disrespect for our colleagues, let’s see how we can do better.
Level Two: Listening to Understand. The reason Level Two listening is so much more effective, and so much more well-received, is because of the shift in our intentions (that can’t be faked). Instead of ‘one-upping’ our colleagues best story, we might even be slowing them down, to ensure we get their meaning. The classic rephrasing is the earmark of Level Two listening, “if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that you don’t feel appreciated at work. Did I catch what you were saying?”
Level Two listening may sound like being forced to pay attention, but in reality, as soon as we shift our attention from wanting to speak to wanting to understand, there is a dramatic shift in our body language. Instead of (at the more extreme level) tensing muscles to hold us back from erupting in an ongoing verbal cavalcade, our body shifts to a relaxed ‘catch’ state, where we sit back as we wait to catch all of what our colleague is saying. Even our facial muscles become more relaxed. If Level Two listeners look more empathetic – it’s because in that state – they are!
If Level Two Listening sounds pretty good, then you’re probably wondering, what does Level Three look like, and how can I even do that?
Level Three: Listening to add (or co-create) value. Recall that Level One is all about me. By comparison, Level Two is all about you. The beauty of Level Three is that it is all about ‘us’. That is, by listening well enough at Level Two, if there is an earnest desire to help your friend, or see them overcome their challenges or attain their goals, there is an even deeper level of listening, done by the whole body, which is focused on “how can I help?”
It’s important to clarify here that sometimes really helpful people are guilty of Level One Listening, because as soon as their friend utters a challenge they might spring to “how can I help?” before the other person is finished their sentence.
As a coach, there are two reasons Level Three Listening creates more value than a Level One helpful sprinter.
First, we never want to be a crutch. As Lexington James said, “the helpful hand you are looking for is usually at the end of your own arm”. By rushing in to ‘save’ our friend, we might be giving them what they want, but not what they need. If I got the help I wanted when I was building my business, I wouldn’t have developed the resiliency I needed, and I wouldn’t be in business today.
The second reason Level Three Listening generates far more value than Level One helpful sprinters, or even conscientious Level Two listeners, is that by giving your colleague space (versus rushing in) or patiently allowing potentially uncomfortable silence, we can get to the root cause. In short, we tend to complain about the problem we know about.
In relationships, we complain about the other person, we don’t lead with our own shortcomings that are manifesting as a reaction from the other person. In business we complain about cash flow or a lack of sales, not how we are uncertain about the mechanisms that would lead to greater revenue consistency. In terms of our health we complain about the extra 20 pounds we gained, not the willpower and discipline we’ve been lacking.
Level Three Listeners care enough about the outcome to be truly ‘in’ the process enough to be patient. Patient enough to let their friend squirm for their own benefit long enough to come to self-awareness, rather than being a crutch. They also care about a systemic, powerful solution, not a Band-Aid®.
Awareness precedes change. Now that you’re aware there are deeper levels of listening available to you, will you rely on your one mouth? Will you deploy both of your ears? Or will you call on your whole body, mind and soul?
To your success my friends, and to the success of those you’re now more equipped to help!