Improve Your Most Underrated Leadership Skill: Listening

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Listening is a rare skill. Most of us don’t actively listen; we listen with filters and wait for our turn to speak. I believe listening is a superpower. As a leader, you can make your job much easier if you actually listen to others, rather than just wait for your turn to speak.

The three levels of listening

I learned about these three levels of listening while studying to be an executive coach. They are extremely useful as a leader, and also in your personal life.

Level 1 Listening

This level of listening is filtering everything through the lens of you. If I were speaking with you and told you my backstory of living in Europe (UK and Ireland) for seven years, you may start to think about the trip to Spain you had planned this summer that COVID disrupted. What a pain... and now you have those flight credits to use...  where will you use those? You have stopped paying attention, stopped listening, and started to think about something completely different. This level is listening with a filter where you want to hear something specific. You have a pre-conceived view on something, and you aren't listening to the speaker - you are listening for something you can use to prove your point. What is scary is that most of us listen at this level most of the time. It wastes an incredible amount of time in meetings. It causes a lot of unnecessary conflicts and wasted time. You know what it feels like when someone isn't really listening to you. It's frustrating. It’s easy to level-up your listening skills by being aware of when you are listening at level one, and snapping out of it as soon as you notice. You want to level up your listening to levels two and three.

Level 2 Listening

This level of listening is about focusing entirely on the speaker, with the intention to understand their perspective, even if it's a perspective you may not agree with. This is sometimes called Active Listening.

You park your need to be right, to be defensive, to prove your point. You prioritize seeking to understand, then to be understood - one of Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is as useful and applicable today as it was 31 years ago when he first wrote about it in his 1989 book. Listening doesn’t mean being overly consensus-driven. There is a point where you need to be decisive and move forward. The key is people feeling that they’ve been heard because people want their voice to be heard. Even if they don’t like the decision, it’s much easier to “disagree and commit” if they feel heard. Listening and acknowledging their view will help them feel heard. While listening at level two, maintain eye contact, even virtually. Give the speaker your undivided attention. Be curious. If you want to collaborate more effectively with other humans, one of the most useful 3-and-a-half minutes you can spend is watching this video on Conscious Leadership. Park your need to be right. Be curious.

Level 3 Listening

This level of listening is about listening to the environment. Body language, tone of voice, what isn’t being said, who sits or doesn’t sit next to who in the boardroom. These are all environmental clues that tell you something if you listen to them. Level three listening is more difficult in a virtual environment, to be sure. But it is still there for you.

One of the CEOs I coach was running a virtual leadership meeting. He picked up something in the tone of voice when one of their leaders asked a question and felt that something might be amiss. The CEO reached out after the meeting to the individual to check-in, and they resolved the unspoken concern. This prevented unnecessary conflict and wasted time down the road.

Leadership mindset: you don’t need all the answers

A key to unlocking the ability to listen effectively is to drop the mindset that as a leader, you need to have all the answers. I believe this mindset is outdated and ineffective in today’s world. When I worked at Rackspace, I was encouraged to hire people smarter than me. Of course, people respect domain and technical or subject-matter expertise.

At the same time, knowledge workers don’t always want to be told what to do, even if you CAN tell them. Dan Pink uncovered the three motivating factors for creative people and knowledge workers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. If you believe you need to have all the answers and be the smartest person in the room, you are missing out on giving people the autonomy they crave. When I joined Demonware as COO, I was responsible for a variety of areas: finance, engineering, operations, HR. I couldn’t possibly know more than the experts in each of those domains. I listened, provided guidance, and gave autonomy to people to do their best work. What opportunities do you have this week to improve your leadership by shifting from level one to level two and three of listening?

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