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Levels of Listening

By Peter Pearson - 5th Aug 2016

Levels of Listening

How good a listener are you? For many busy people the answer is, 'Not as good as I'd like to be!' We have so much to do, we think there is a danger that other people will push us off course if we listen to everything they say - so we take in the bare minimum we need to know to keep functioning.

For the typical busy manager looking to develop coaching skills, this is an issue that needs to be addressed. To become an effective coach you have to become a good listener - there is no way round this!

But how can you become a better listener? Here are a few pointers in the right direction.

Create the right environment

The hardest battle is going to be internal – putting aside our natural egotism to become 100% focussed on the person in front of us. But we haven’t a hope of winning this battle if we allow external distractions to seep in – yes, the obvious ones like emails, texts, tweets, phone calls, human interruptions. All of these need to be banished!

Create a space that is calm, that has comfortable seating of equal size (and usually at a bit of an angle), with phones on silent and a note on the door. Be fierce about protecting this space! It is your minimum commitment to your client and the process itself.

Level 1 Listening

Level 1 is our natural egotistical state. We take in the bare minimum and wait until we can get a word in edgeways. This isn’t really listening.

Level 2 Listening

If level 1 is our natural egotistical state, then level 2 is reaching a level of objectivity. That means taking in every word that is said and ensuring you understand what your client means.

How to do this? Practising is a good start! Become more self-aware - notice when you are really paying attention and when you are not! This can be done at any time!

If what the client is saying is complicated then making summary statements can be really helpful, for them as well as for you. ‘You’ve said there are 3 things bothering you, X, Y and Z – is that right?’ This shows the client you are paying attention and helps them begin to gain an objective view of their own situation. ‘Well, actually I know I have X in hand, but there is something else….’

Level 2 listening is a bare minimum to start coaching. It shows you are taking a genuine interest in the other person. Your mind is reasonably clear and you show this by taking in the facts of what they are saying. It’s is a good place to start – but of course it isn’t sufficient in itself to be an effective coach.

Level 3 Listening

You may well have come across this much repeated statistic, taken from Albert Mehrabian's 1967 research, that human communication is 7% verbal, 38% in voice tone and 55% non-verbal (body language). (In fact Mehrabian did not show that, but in some ways this is a useful myth in highlighting the importance of non-verbal communication.) We are emotional beings, and we communicate a lot through non-verbal means. The coach who remains at level 2, and is insensitive to what is being communicated non-verbally, is missing a significant part of what is being communicated (even if it is not actually 93%).

Like so much about becoming a better coach, it is well worth experiencing this in practice, so here’s a simple exercise you can try.

A Simple Exercise

This exercise works well for groups of 5, but can work for groups of between 3 and 10 people.

One person is designated speaker - they are to speak on a matter of interest to them for 3-5 minutes. The others in the group don't interrupt, can take notes and each have one focus of listening:

  • listener 1 pays attention only to the facts of the situation (level 2 listening)
  • listener 2 pays attention only to voice tone
  • listener 3 pays attention only to body language
  • listener 4 pays attention only the speaker's energy level

If there are more than 5 in your group, or as alternatives if you're getting advanced at this:

  • listener 5 pays attention only to Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic modalities (see forthcoming resource on the 'VAK map')
  • listener 6 pays attention only to the level of animation of the speaker's face (especially eyes and mouth)
  • listener 7 pays attention only to the speaker's use of language patterns in the Coach's Phrasebook (see forthcoming resource on the Coach's Phrasebook)
  • listener 8 pays attention only to the speaker's emotions (how do they perceive these?)
  • listener 9 pays attention only to the speaker's intention to take action
  • listener 10 pays attention only to similes, metaphors and any other non-literal language

Each listener then briefly feeds back to the speaker what they noticed. Finally the speaker has the chance to respond to the feedback. What was most insightful? Do they think any listener was 'wrong' about what they picked up (i.e. did they project any of their own thoughts and feelings?)

In most cases the speaker will be surprised at just how much they were communicating non-verbally. Next, everyone swaps roles.

What kind of listening do you find most easy? What kind least so?

Level 3 listening can be characterised as 'whole body listening'. You are fully present and paying attention to the emotion as well as the facts, the music as well as the score. The client feels heard and is able to focus on what is really most important to them. The conditions are in place for good coaching to take place.

Level 4 or 'Generative' Listening

Occasionally an angel passes through the room.

The client thinks and says things they did not know they thought or believed. The conditions are right - the coach\s attentiveness, the trust that has been built up between coach and client - enables a deeper truth to emerge. The moment feels 'holy', even for those with no normal sense of faith or spirituality.

Level 4 cannot be conjured at will and the coach who tried to force such moments would probably make them less likely. But they can happen, and it is a reminder of the importance and seriousness of what can happen when coaching is given the respect it deserves.

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