Most people appreciate the importance of communication skills. Being adept in how we interact with those around us is one of the most important life skills. But how good a listener are you? Our self-appraisal of listening skills suggests that we think we're better than we really are.
I'm going to summarise here some reading that brought home for me in a succinct way how important good listening skills are and how we need to be intentional in our approach.
I've been reading Amanda Sinclair's book, Leading Mindfully, and the chapter on listening from stillness resonated with me. We tend to think that good listening skills look like this:
- Being quiet while others talk
- Projecting an engaged, lean-forward posture
- Asking open questions rather than closed
- Use of eye contact, verbal & facial expressions to acknowledge (nodding, 'mmm.. ah ha...')
- Repeating back to demonstrate understanding
Interestingly people are becoming more aware when we have our 'nodding face' on and this can compromise listening and communication.
Sinclair defines mindfulness as 'a way of being which values awareness of whatever is unfolding in the present moment.' This means consciously moderating the amount of speaking and silence we habitually adopt. To listen deeply means stopping, consciously making an effort to be in the moment - described by Thich Nhat Nanh as 'deep looking' - and not delivering our usual routine of listening.
When listeners don't fill up the conversation with their own prompts, or are more sparing, speakers feel encouraged to continue and may pursue more sensitive or hidden aspects of what is being discussed.
As listeners, we all find our minds often become engaged and active, leading to internal thoughts of evaluation, judgment or response-planning. With practice we can tune into these thoughts, notice when there is excessive internal commentary disengaging us from the present moment, and then slowly let go and listen.
There is a sense then of listening from a stiller and more powerful place. An opportunity to experiment with silence. Silence can communicate great care and respect, especially if difficult issues or feelings are being discussed.
Listening and engagement
Of course, this isn't to say that we shouldn't engage when speaking with others. Good listeners absolutely engage in two way dialogue and the best conversations are active. Zenger and Folkman analysed 3,492 participants in a coach development program. They identified the top 5% of effective listeners and ascertained what characteristics their colleagues identified as contributing to their outstanding skills of listening. They grouped findings into 4 main areas:
Good listening is more than being silent
The best listeners are those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight, gently challenging assumptions in a constructive way.
Good listening included interactions that build a persons self-esteem
The conversation was a positive experience for the other party, which cannot happen if you're being passive or critical. A safe environment was created and the other person felt supported and confidence in them was conveyed.
Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation
In these conversations, feedback and discussion flowed smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive. Although assumptions may be challenged and there may be disagreement, there is a feeling of trying to help, not wishing to win an argument.
Good listeners tended to make suggestions
Often we are told that problem-solving isn't the role of a good listener, but the research suggests that making suggestions is not itself a problem, but the skill with which those suggestions are made.
Zenger and Folkman consider 6 levels of listening, each of which builds on the one before. Not every conversation requires the highest levels of listening, but many conversations would benefit from greater listening skills.
Level 1: The listener creates a safe environment in which difficult, complex, or emotional issues can be discussed.
Level 2: The listener clears away distractions like phones and laptops, focusing attention on the other person and making appropriate eye-contact. (This behaviour not only affects how you are perceived as the listener; it immediately influences the listener’s own attitudes and inner feelings. Acting the part changes how you feel inside. This in turn makes you a better listener.)
Level 3: The listener seeks to understand the substance of what the other person is saying. They capture ideas, ask questions, and restate issues to confirm that their understanding is correct.
Level 4: The listener observes non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions, perspiration, respiration rates, gestures, posture, and numerous other subtle body language signals. It is estimated that 80% of what we communicate comes from these signals. It sounds strange to some, but you listen with your eyes as well as your ears.
Level 5: The listener increasingly understands the other person’s emotions and feelings about the topic at hand, and identifies and acknowledges them. The listener empathises with and validates those feelings in a supportive, nonjudgmental way.
Level 6: The listener asks questions that clarify assumptions the other person holds and helps the other person to see the issue in a new light. This could include the listener injecting some thoughts and ideas about the topic that could be useful to the other person. However, good listeners never highjack the conversation so that they or their issues become the subject of the discussion.
Being aware of the importance of how we listen to others has the potential to transform how they experience the world, to help them grow and be empowered to tackle complex issues. Changing how we give attention to people around us will have a profoundly positive effect on those we lead and interact with every day. I'm going to make a poster of the 6 levels as a daily reminder.
And I can definitely recommend Amanda Sinclair's book on Leading Mindfully - hit the link to see the chapter list.
If you think this is important, join the positive leadership movement and talk about these issues. Share/like on social media, so others know you believe in it and the word spreads. Be the change you want to see in our health care systems.