Has anyone ever said to you, “I feel like you’re not hearing me”?

Ouch. It’s an unfortunate (but common) source of frustration in both personal and professional conversations.

Most of us can name at least one important personal relationship that has slipped into an unhealthy pattern of communication. One where neither person feels seen, heard or understood. If both people can address it before the connection is irreparably broken, great! But, more often than not, one person will begin to distance themselves, or even choose to break off the relationship.

What happens when that same pattern occurs in a professional relationship?

Effective communication is crucial in the workplace at all levels, especially for leaders and their teams.

The ability to actually hear and understand each other is vital for establishing and maintaining productive relationships with coworkers and clients, providing solutions, and creating successful business outcomes.

Yet, most people report that their colleagues are sorely lacking in the listening skills department. In addition, most of us have a blindspot in the area of our own listening skill deficits, which in most cases could use a serious upgrade.

Successful leaders know that the foundation of effective communication is listening and are always looking to improve.To amplify your leadership success, here are some ways that you can polish up your listening skills for the sake of better communications at home and at work.

1, 2, 3: The Levels of Listening

A good place to start is with the fundamentals of listening.

The Co-Active Training Institute teaches three levels of listening, each with a distinct focus.

1) Level One listening : “That reminds me of me!”

Level One listening is focused primarily on yourself.  You could be thinking about your to-do list or a meeting you have to plan. You might be “voting” or judging the other person relative to your own experiences as they are speaking. Often in Level One listening, you are simply waiting for the other person to take a breath so you can jump in with your own opinion or story. The key here is that you are not fully focused on hearing and understanding the other person but instead are thinking about yourself and your own agenda.

Most of us can recall the frustration of a time when we shared with a colleague a challenging situation, and rather than a sympathetic ear, we were subjected to the other person’s war stories. Not helpful!

2) Level Two listening – ’’I’m all in!”

Level Two listening is intense, present and laser focused on what the other person is saying. 

Distractions and background noise go unnoticed. Your own thoughts take a back seat and you listen with rapt attention, fully immersed in the words of the other person.

Quite the opposite of the Level One example, Level Two Listening usually results in the other person feeling fully seen and heard. You and your partner are in sync, firing on all cylinders, locked in… There’s an equal balance of giving and receiving. Nothing else matters other than the conversation you’re sharing in the moment.

3) Level Three listening, “More than words…”

Like Level Two, Level Three listening is also fully engaged and 100% directed toward the other person, however the focus is wider, encompassing the energy, nuances and the “vibe” of the space in which the conversation is taking place. You, the listener, are picking up on non-verbal cues from the other person, and any activity in the surrounding space.

You’re taking in the “buzz” of the room while still leaning into the conversation you’re engaged in. Or, it could be situational, where a leader wants  to understand the perspective of their team member. As in, “I understand what is occurring in this moment, and I’m also aware of what might be in the way of voicing your concerns at this moment.”

Curiosity: Your Listening Superpower

In a serious pursuit of better listening skills, curiosity takes center stage.

Nancy Kline, author of Time to Think, writes about the power of giving another person our full undivided listening attention. How do we do this? By becoming genuinely curious about and interested in the other person and their ideas.

So, in any conversation with other humans, curiosity is a listening superpower. Alternatively, incuriosity breeds the “cost of behavior.” 

What do I mean by that? 

A dedicated practitioner of better listening wildly curious about any conversation in which they find themselves. It can be a 30-second encounter with a grocery store cashier or an in-depth interview with a podcast guest. Topics can be explored, minds opened, and energy exchanged.

In the workplace, curiosity is an essential  building block for trust, fostered through active, engaged listening. Really living the adage, “seek first to understand, then to be understood ” is a commitment worth making.

Creating a culture where curiosity and listening are the norm takes vulnerability, courage, humility, practice and above all, intention. Though change is always an effort, in this case the rewards are generative and far reaching.

On the (unfortunate) other side of this coin are workplaces that breed some of the biggest curiosity killers: a fixed mindset, a reliance on the status quo (fear of change), a need to be right vs. a genuine desire to get it right, and a lack of time & space to think. Ideas get shut down before they have the freedom to fly. Leadership may actually want to further a discussion, but time or other constraints prohibit them from diving deeper into an idea/proposal. Sometimes, team members are unaware they are cutting creativity off at the pass. They may unintentionally interrupt, not understanding their actions are blocking a five-star idea from burgeoning.

No matter the reason, this behavior comes at a cost; innovation goes by the wayside, resentment can creep in and erode team trust and engagement. When a brilliant spark of inspiration—one that might progress an organization’s growth—gets snuffed out before it has the opportunity to take hold, people can feel deflated. This can lead to a ripple of non-listening side effects. Those who aren’t being heard might “armor up” and refuse to participate in conversations going forward. Others tend to shrink, feeling disrespected, and frustrated with their place in the organization. Not good!

Further, the cost of behavior affects the company’s bottom line. One recent study—whose highlights were published by HR Dive—noted that companies that ask for and act on employee feedback are 11 times more likely to experience high employee retention than ones that do not.

A 2021 global study of over 4,000 employees, conducted by The Workforce Institute at UKG and Workplace Intelligence, also revealed some interesting insights. As reported on by Forbes, “Highly engaged employees are three times more likely to say they feel heard at their workplace (92%) than highly disengaged employees (30%) … [and] 88% of employees whose companies financially outperform others in their industry feel heard compared to 62% of employees at financially underperforming companies.”

The same survey found that a disheartening 4 out of 5 employees also experience their employer as not hearing them, and “nearly half (47%) say that underrepresented voices remain undervalued by employers. In particular, essential workers, younger workers, non-caregiving employees, and employees who identify with underserved races and ethnicities feel less heard than their workplace counterparts.”

We have to do better!

So… How Can We Improve Our Listening Skills?

The good news is that listening is a skill set that can be taught, observed and measured. 

Here are a few ways to get started  incorporate into your daily life:

  • ABC—Always Be Curious! It truly is your listening superpower.
  • Be conscious of body language. Arms folded can be received as “blocking” one’s thoughts, whereas leaning in feels more engaging (just be careful about personal space).
  • Additional nonverbal behavior includes “active listening” cues like nodding/acknowledging and maintaining eye contact.
  • Really attempt to be in the present moment with the other person. Avoid rehearsing your response while the other person is talking.
  • Pay attention to witness when you slip into level one listening so you can quickly redirect your focus.
  • Welcome silence, if it comes, allows the other person to feel more confident in sharing their thoughts, because you’re not immediately jumping on the last statements they made.

Get Started on Becoming a Better Listener Today

Everyone has the potential to become a better listener and upleveling your listening skills will pay dividends in all your communications. And, the evidence clearly supports the fact that poor listening behavior can actually impact a company’s bottom line. Something so seemingly “intangible” does in fact affect employee retention, which in turn influences revenue.

At Human Emergence Group, we work with leaders to cultivate principles of personal responsibility and authenticity—so they can develop the competencies they need to maximize the synergy, creativity, and positive workplace culture that  drives successful  business results. If you’d like to learn more about how listening fits into this, or any element of effective leadership, we’d love to talk to you! Schedule a free consultation today.