The benefits of good listening

‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood.’ Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Listening is one of our most useful, under-utilised and under-appreciated skills.

So often we prepare for a conversation by planning what we want to say, and it’s easy to think that we’ve had a good conversation if we’ve done most of the talking and put our point across. However, to think about conversations in this way is to miss a number of very important factors, all of which derive from good listening.

I’ve called listening a skill because while it’s a sense (like seeing and tasting) the skill is in our focus on the data that comes in, and what we do with it in the moment. Because it’s a skill, it can be something that we are good at or not so good at, and it’s something we can develop and improve.

Good listening has lots of benefits. For the listener, it ensures good understanding and opens up the possibility of new insights and new knowledge, and it develops and satisfies a sense of curiosity.

For the speaker, it provides the space and time to fully express their thoughts – being listened to encourages them to be open. Also, being listened to will help to build someone’s self-esteem, and it encourages them to trust the listener.

The benefits for both speaker and listener are greater rapport and a deeper relationship.

So, what is good listening? There are three types, or levels of listening.

Level 1 listeners don’t even listen, they feign listening while they look over your shoulder, or get lost in their own thoughts. At best, Level 1 listeners hear what is being said but only focus on their own thoughts and only understand what is being said in relation to themselves.

An example from a work situation might be:

John says ‘I’m finding it hard to work the Jack, I’m not sure what I can do.’

Bill says ‘I find him really easy to work with.’

Bill has heard the words but has only processed them in a way that relates to himself – he’s completely missed what John was saying about himself.

Level 2 listeners are ‘practical’ listeners, they hear what is being said in a matter of fact sort of way – they process the information and think through the implications of what is being said. In the above example, Bill might answer by saying: ‘that’s going to make teamwork difficult and slow down production time.’

Level 2 listeners might also show that they are listening and acknowledge that they understand – perhaps by keeping eye-contact and nodding.

Level 3 listeners are empathic listeners. They listen intently (what is being said is their primary focus), they acknowledge what is being said, and they are aware of other signs of communication from the speaker – the tone of voice, the speed of delivery, the pauses for thought, gestures and other body language etc. At level 3 it is impossible not to listen empathically – here the listener will be thinking about the implications of what is being said, not for themselves, but for the speaker.

In the example above, if Bill was listening at level 3, he might say:

‘What is it that you find difficult?’

‘I understand why you feel like that.’ (even if Bill doesn’t feel that way himself, if he’s listening empathically he’ll understand why John feels that way)

‘What are you going to do about it’ or ‘Is there anything I can do to help.’

When someone listens at level 1 there’s a good chance that the speaker will notice that they’re not being listened to properly. This can lead to feelings of being undermined or unimportant, and they will be dismissive of the listener. Needless-to-say, we should strive to listen at, at least, level 2.

The benefits of good listening in the workplace are numerous – it helps to bring about:

  • good understanding about what needs to be achieved, what is to be done and how it is to be done
  • good relationships between colleagues
  • good management – good listening is a key skill for managers
  • good relationships with customers and clients
  • increased sales – consultative selling relies on good listening

One of the first jobs I had in my early twenties was working on a construction site – on my first day, Dusty (the man I’d been assigned to work with) said to me ‘you’ll get on here if you remember that you’ve got two ears and only one mouth.’ Great advice!

Who have you listened to today?

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