The best leaders are also the best listeners: Here’s how to become a better listener

Author - Per Nordahl. Senior Leadership Consultant

Listening may be one of the most effective ways to communicate for those wanting to see themselves and their staff grow and thrive. Through listening and communication we achieve trust and secure relationships that enable us to create unique results together, as individuals, teams and organizations. But what characterizes good listening, and what should you be aware of as a leader?

Most people are gregarious beings. We thrive when we create good relationships with each other, and our ability to create and develop these relationships is precisely what communication is all about. Communication is a two-way street; it is about our ability to express our own opinions, feelings and experiences, but also our ability to be receptive and responsive to other opinions, feelings and experiences.

Often it is the communicator part – i.e., the person who shares their opinions, feelings or experiences – that gets all the focus and attention. But if you are in a position where it's important to get others to feel motivated and to develop their ability to perform, then the role of listener is equally important.

"It used to be that using different levels of listening was not something I was very good at. I generally had a lot of ideas and beliefs that I was focused on sharing with others, which is common for most of us. But this didn't work for me as my roles changed and I was given more and more responsibility. Like so many others, I realized I was unable to build the necessary relationships and confidence required for those under my supervision to perform at their best."

The above is my experience and at the same time an issue I often encounter among my customers today, and perhaps the most basic and effective tool to succeed is to develop your listening skills. But what characterizes good listening?

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What are the characteristics of the different levels of listening?

We usually talk about three levels of listening. What separates them is where your focus lies in your listening and presence with the person or team you are with.

Level 1 listening: “What should I have for lunch?”

Level 1 listening is primarily listening to yourself, your own thoughts and agenda. You can focus on a number of things. Perhaps you are thinking about what you want to say and make others believe, and only partly hear what others say. Maybe you're wondering what you're going to have for lunch or dinner, or if you remembered to send that email to the customer.… The point is that in level 1 listening, you don't really listen much at all to the other person. This is something most people will pick up on at some level of consciousness.

The result can be uncertainty and misinterpretations, lack of trust and frustration in not feeling seen, heard or appreciated.

Level 2 listening: Listening becomes an active effort

Level 2 listening is completely focused on what the other person says. You let nothing distract you. You block out thoughts about irrelevant things from the past, or things you expect in the future. Even your own thoughts and ideas don’t interfere with your ability to take in and focus on the other person or team. The result is often that, like the person who is sharing, you feel seen and appreciated, that you have something interesting to contribute, which in turn creates energy and motivation and often greater awareness of what one says and does, which in turn creates better performance on the individual, team and organizational level. Listening becomes an active action with transformational qualities.

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Level 3 listening: You also listen to those around you

Level 3 listening, like Level 2, is also fully directed at the other person, but has a broader focus. You hear and register more than just the words. You pick up all sorts of other things – body language, sounds and tone of voice, pauses, hesitation, how the eyes move… It's like you can pick up effects that boost the scene, as if it were a movie. The sound of a coin hitting the ground, how they are distracted by a fly… You may sense how they are trying to avoid or bring up a topic. And you can draw this into the conversation to see if it can help you capture something that otherwise would have passed you by.

This way of connecting the surroundings and our way of interacting with others – whether we like or not – opens up a broader understanding, both in our relationship and the way we engage with ourselves and with others, and is extremely useful for you as a leader.

We all want to move between the three levels in everyday life, and there is no one answer to which level is the right one. Our mission as a leader is to be able to move between them based on what the situation requires at any given time – and that requires training.

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Listening to data

Beyond listening to your co-workers, you can also use these levels of listening when your team receives data in the form of surveys such as GELx, Pulse, or TeamTalk.

Level 1 listening is still about what the data mean to me. This can take the form of constructive self-insight and identification of personal development points.

On level 2, it can take the form of relational aspects and actions that need to be addressed and tackled.

At level 3, listening is about seeing the organizational, systemic and cultural aspects that can be seen through the data points and identifying appropriate measures to create the desired change.

The value it creates

Increasing awareness and exploring possible connections and narrative about your data is always a rewarding process, both for us as a supporting player and for our customers who get to explore their own role and organization in a safe and development-oriented framework.

The important thing is to develop your own and your organization's awareness and ability to listen at all three levels, whether in a qualitative or quantitative context. What understanding is available if I set aside my own and our organization’s truths and confirmation needs? What are my blind spots?

“You cannot not communicate” is a famous quote from Paul Watzlacwick. Listening may be one of the most effective ways to communicate for those wanting to see themselves and their employees grow and thrive, so spend a little time thinking about what levels of listening you use when, and what you want to improve? I would be happy to listen to what you think about it.

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Per Nordahl. Senior Leadership Consultant
Author

Per Nordahl. Senior Leadership Consultant

Per works as Senior Leadership Consultant in Leadership & Team Development. He focuses on executive coaching and organizational culture and has solid experience in working with both. At Ennova Per is involved in international projects focusing on leadership and organizational culture in unpredictable environments and transformational change.