7:21 AM, October 1, 2023

The power of truly listening

| The European | 9 January 2023

We all want to be heard, and we all like to think we are good listeners, but according to former CEO and business coach Jill Bausch, most of us have much to learn

Listening as a leader is, in my view, the greatest cornerstone to success among all that you do in any leadership capacity. People will say they are good listeners because they are often in conversation and enjoy talking. However, many people are not as good at listening as they imagine they are. Humans tend to dislike silent pauses in conversation, and we rush to answer questions or interject as soon as an opening arises. We are constantly thinking about what to say next. When we do that, we aren’t listening with our full attention. As the old saying goes, “if your mouth is moving, you’re not hearing much.”

Giving others your full attention in a conversation is the key to good listening. It is the difference between talking at someone and talking with someone. It’s also a demonstration of courtesy, humility, and respect. Others need and deserve that respect just as much as you do, because all people want and need to be heard.

As I’ve come up through the ranks to CEO and board chair, I’ve firmly decided that most people have something of interest to say. They might have opinions that could be valuable counsel about a situation vital to me. They could have insights about questions I may have. They could have experiences and skills that I lack. Their bank of knowledge is different from mine. Sometimes an informal relationship may last for one five-minute conversation. If you and I speak with each other, and we gain value from that short conversation, we have mentored one another for those few moments, and we’ve both felt heard.

Listening to and speaking with (instead of speaking at) others is so fundamental to good human interaction that we should understand this inherently, and they should be habits so deeply ingrained in us that they happen in every interaction. Sadly, we don’t live in that world. Many people need to be trained to listen properly. But the good news is that if one is willing to learn there are miraculous gains to be made in human relationships. Both professional and personal.

Don’t just hear me out

When you listen to someone with your whole head and heart, you will make deeper connections because you can pick up on people’s vulnerabilities and their authenticity. By truly listening, without distraction, you can also pick up on things that are not spoken but are sensed. When you’re truly listening, you’re using the peak of your emotional intelligence. Only then will you pick up others’ fears, joys, concerns, and other vital elements just as important as the words being spoken.

A good rule to remember is to choose your method of communication commensurate to the level of how high the stakes are for the outcome.

The three Levels of Listening

Level 1 listening is an interaction where the primary focus of the listener is on their own thoughts, opinions, judgments, and feelings. People relate the words they hear to their experiences or needs. This type of listening is entirely appropriate when we are facing a decision or when we must collect information. This is fine for most small topics, housekeeping details, the weather or easygoing “water cooler” conversations that don’t involve essential topics.

Level 2 listening means giving undivided attention of the listener is entirely on the speaker and on the conversation. This means not only hearing what is being said but also noticing how it is said. It involves paying attention to the tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions. This type is empathic listening and includes reflecting on the words of the speaker. The topics usually go on to involves some individual views, thoughts, or deep feelings that you will want to hear or share. In level 2, the stakes are getting higher.

Level 3 listening brings an entirely new state of awareness to the conversation. It involves doing everything at Level 2, plus using intuition and being open to receiving more information in any form that it presents itself. This means tuning in not only to the conversation but to the environment. The use of intuition can be misunderstood because it is not based on hard facts. The concept of intuition is, in fact, simple and can be an excellent communication asset. If you get a hunch, for example, while listening to your conversational partner, consider bringing it up but do not be attached to it. Without insisting on being right, observe the effect it has on the speaker and be aware of where the conversation goes next. It is irrelevant whether you are right or wrong; what is important is the effect on the conversation. Level three listening means the stakes are at their highest, the outcome is crucial

Cultivate the art of listening

We can always all morph between the three levels, but when a crucial topic is on the table, we can and should harness the power to move straight to Level 3 listening.

We don’t necessarily progress from Level 1 to Level 3 in a conversation, we choose the level appropriate to the time and circumstances. Those circumstances sometimes require us to make a jump from the casual conversation we expected to as serious as it gets, and to make that switch in an instant.

It’s a question of severity. Level 1 is casual. Level 2 is important. Level 3 is crucial. You never know where a conversation will go, so you must be flexible, and you can only do this by intensive hearing. This requires undivided attention because the speaker may not come out and explode their troubles to your face.

On top of all that, you need to be brave. Sometimes, it is courageous to be quiet. At other times, it takes courage to speak the truth people don’t want to hear. We need to be direct but in compassionate ways.

Putting it into practice

Test yourself on these habits of Level 1 Listening:

  • Are you high jacking someone’s point to focus the attention on you?
  • Are you changing the subject with little or no segue way?
  • Are you asking questions, but not paying attention to the answers?

Now test yourself on these habits of Level 3 Listening:

  • Are you both physically and mentally quiet when others speak?
  • Are you asking questions about what the speaker has said without bringing focus back to yourself?
  • Are you making eye contact?
  • Are you refraining from fiddling with things, phones, keys, acting distracted?
  • Have you asked if they are able to look at it any other ways, with other viewpoints?
  • Have you asked what they need from you on this topic? Is it just to listen? To give ideas? To suggest actions?
  • Are you prepared to do absolutely nothing, except listen, because you haven’t been asked for advice, they may just need to know you care?

Level 2 is the in-between, mixing the aspects of Level 1 and Level 3. It’s where most of us naturally find ourselves. Level 3 listening is a habit to be cultivated, where you remember that moments of silence matter. You simply need to consciously decide that you’ll pay attention, and value, what others have to say. Perhaps most difficult of all, to seek out and understand what they need.


Jill Bausch is the former CEO of Futures Group Europe, a coach, philanthropic strategist, facilitator, social impact advisor and author of ‘Why Brave Women Win’.

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