“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

~Stephen R. Covey

Years ago when I was training to be a ‘Don’ in my university residence, we were introduced to a concept called ‘Active Listening’. It seemed a bit hokey to those of us used to listening to the thoughts and ideas being bandied about the campus, reflecting upon and analysing how Marx remained relevant even today as corporate power was greenwashing their activities, the commons was being sold off and social justice was being undermined by neoliberal doctrine and religious power struggles. We’d listened all right… we listened and debated minutia, catching each other out on semantic errors.

What could we possibly do to improve our listening?

It turned out, quite a bit.

Active listening is just what it sounds like. You take an active role, demonstrating that you’re hearing the person with the sort of utterances that give that impression, ‘uhuh… I see, I hear you, wow…’ You know the type. It also included rephrasing summaries of what you’d heard the person say. Not in it’s details, but in what you heard the person feeling about whatever it is that they were saying.

Pretty powerful stuff, really.

Over a few days of practice, we readied ourselves to listen to new first year students bring their homesickness, relationship struggles, academic fears and confusion and all kinds of things to our dorm offices. And the really amazing thing was that we were ready.

Freshers week, an institution the world over, I’m sure, brought with it a surge in new students’ need for a confidential ear, reassurance and some much needed ‘been there done that’ advice. It’s largely blurred into one big gestalt of an experience for me now, but I’ve kept the active listening skills because…

They’re integral to coaching.

Necessary, but not sufficient. Active listening (also known as Level 2 listening), the way it’s described in coaching circles, is something that could, literally, be done with your eyes closed. It’s hearing and feeding back. Unfortunately, in terms of information conveyed in human exchanges, it’s missing a large measure of the pie. Body language accounts for various percentages of human communication, depending upon the source, but it’s always a sizeable measure, almost always over 50%. If you’re not observing as well, you can’t really be fully listening. We’ve all seen the reluctant participant who verbally agrees to something… on paper, it’s a yes, on video; it’s a no way!

Listening is about context too. Someone talking about agreeing to a hike in the summer, who’s just lost their job, is going to be giving mixed messages with their body language. They may indeed want to go hiking; indeed they might be keen hikers! If you know them, you’ll have an idea if something is out of sorts. If you don’t know them, you’d need to ask about their apparent incongruity.

Fatigue, preoccupation, stress or just some gastrointestinal discomfort can shift apparent meanings all over the place. But that’s part of the idea of ‘Global Listening’.

Global listening is voice, body language, circumstances, ambiance, clothing, among other things. It’s how Sherlock Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, notes all the subtleties that make the legendary detective so adept. A good coach will, however, be much more personable and sensitive about what their intuition has uncovered. After all, we’re not all so comfortable with our own inner workings as Mr. Holmes.

Global listening is listening to understand in order to help. It’s about being sensitive not just to what’s being said, but what’s not being said and how things are being said or not. It’s about identifying the language the coachee is using and making inferences about how the person is thinking and   It’s one of the key skills a coach employs that makes them, well, employable!

So, to recap:

Level 1 listening is listening to yourself. It’s listening to your own internal dialogue, and really having a good understanding of your thoughts and feelings. It’s surprising how many people actually aren’t aware of what they’re thinking and feeling in a precise way.  It’s not really likely to let you really listen to others though.

Level 2 listening is Active listening. You’re feeding back, really paying attention to the person you’re conversing with and demonstrating your focus both verbally and non-verbally. The person knows and feels like you’re really hearing them.

Level 3 listening is Global listening. It’s the key to coaching. You’re watching body language, listening to tone of voice, getting a real sense of what they’re saying and using your intuition to understand what they’re not saying as well. It’s about inferring and delving to a deeper understanding than even the coachee may have.

This is the level from which a coach will be able to talk about your actions and aims being congruent. It’s how they will elicit your true underlying towards and away from values. It’s how they’ll uncover your limiting beliefs, the thoughts you keep thinking that are holding you back.

Level 3 listening is obviously accessible to everyone, after all, there’s nothing special about a coach’s neurobiology, but it does take a fair bit of practice to get good at it. It also takes a lot of practice to build up enough stamina to manage a good length of time, like a whole coaching session.

What level of listening do you use most?  How do you know?  What situation can you envision needing Level 3 instead of Level 2?  What about level 1 rather than 2 or 3?

I’d love to hear your comments and ideas, post below!