Being a good listener isn’t always easy. While someone is talking, we are often thinking of what we want to say next, get distracted by a squirrel off in the distance of our mind, or our defences go up and we just don’t want to hear any more of what they have to say.
As I write this, we are one month away from being 2 years into this global pandemic, and listening, I mean really listening, to the core of what someone is saying (and feeling, and experiencing), has been a struggle. Not just for me, but for many of us.
I would say many of us have our defences up, so we don’t want to hear what someone else has to say because we have already made up our mind about where we stand. Even though I know the importance of having meaningful conversations, especially the difficult ones, this is where I often fall.
If you have felt like your feelings and thoughts have not been heard, or you are struggling to hear someone else’s point of view, I hope this will help.
With anything, this is a practice that will most likely be imperfect. We are perfectly imperfect human beings, so we won’t always get it right. We simply do the best that we can and learn from our mistakes.
What is your listening default style?
The best place to always begin is by becoming self-aware. Start by exploring what your current default listening pattern is.
I’ll guide you through it with three levels of examples below.
As you read, pay attention to where your listening strengths and weaknesses lie. Are you level 1, 2 or 3 by default?
Level 1: Listening to Yourself
This is the me, myself and I zone.
When a person listens at level 1, they are actually listening to the sound of their own inner voice. They may hear the words of the other person, but they are not really listening because they are aware of their own opinions, stories, and judgments. Including, their own feelings, needs, or what they want to say next.
They may be nodding, making you think they are listening, but inside they are saying things like:
“I had an experience just like that, I’m going to tell them my experience.”
“That wasn’t my experience, so I’m going to tell them my experience.”
“That’s not my belief, so I’m going to interrupt and prove why they are wrong.”
“I really need to get home to watch Netflix.”
“I’m hungry; what should I make for dinner?”
“I wonder if I should cut my hair?”
Don’t worry if you hear yourself in these examples, we all listen at this level, and it is perfectly normal. I’m just as guilty.
Where you want to ensure that you are not doing this is when someone is trying to have a difficult conversation with you, or you with them. You want to be able to clearly hear what is sometimes underneath what they are saying.
You also want to pay closer attention when dealing with a conflict situation so that you can reflect back to them what they are saying.
“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize what you heard is not what I meant.”-Robert McCloskey-
Level 2: I’m Really Focused On What You Are Saying
At level 2 you are laser focused. There is an invisible cord from you to the person you are speaking to. All of the attention is on them.
Imagine that you are in a loud crowded room and you are having a deep conversation with someone. You are focused on what they are saying, taking it all in, but you are blocking out all the conversations that are happening around you.
When you feel yourself getting distracted, you can bring yourself back to the conversation by asking questions, or even repeating back what the other person said.
“Sorry, it is loud in here, you said that you have been struggling since you started your new job. Is it because of the learning curve or do you feel like it might be more than that?” Or you may simply say, “tell me more.”
Level 2 listening is great because in order for the conversation to be as effective as possible, you need to be able to stay focused at this level, especially if you are dealing with a difficult situation, or having a meaningful conversation where you truly want to be heard and want the other person to be heard.
A great way to bring yourself back into focus is to remember this acronym when you want to interrupt with your own opinion or story.
W.A.I.T: Why Am I Talking?
When you feel yourself falling back into level 1 listening, take a moment to pause and ask yourself some questions.
– Is this truly the best time to interrupt?
– Will this be helpful to the other person, or will they feel like they are not being heard?
– Is there anything to be gained by me interrupting right now?
– Am I saying this because I want to be right?
I find myself wanting to interrupt often, so this is a strength that I’m constantly practicing. We are human beings, who have a desire to want to be heard and seen just as much as everyone else. This self-awareness isn’t to judge yourself or others, it is simply to become aware.
And the best place to listen is level 3, but this one takes so much focus, practice and energy. Most of us will do the majority of our listening in level 2, but level 3 is very powerful.
Level 3: I’m Listening To You, I’m Hearing You & I’m Feeling You
At this level you are taking in everything – your energy, their energy, and the way it connects you. You are so focused that you can feel when the energy shifts, you can hear undertones in the person’s voice, like anger, frustration, happiness, and even feel an attitude shift.
In this state you are so in your zone, and their zone that you are aware of everything that is going on.
Have you ever gone into a room and felt the energy shift. That is what I’m talking about. You can feel the mood, you can sense a tone even if it is subtle and you know when you might need to pivot the conversation to have a greater impact.
Have you ever said to someone who wasn’t picking up the vibe of what they were saying and said, “Dude, read the room!” This is that level that I’m talking about.
Simply put, you are reading the room – you can feel what the person is saying, or maybe even what they are about to say. You can sense what is landing and what isn’t. You can feel where the conversation is going based on what the person is saying and the energy you are feeling.
There is an intuition that happens here where you will be able to tap into what needs to be said or done next. When someone says, “That’s it, you said exactly what I needed to hear,” it is most likely because you were tuned into them at this level of listening.
This level takes practice, but it is so great to master because you can pick up as much information as you need that will have the greatest impact on the conversation you are having.
As a coach, I have to practice listening at this level so that I can tune into my client at the deepest level. I often find myself saying, “I know you didn’t say this, but I’m getting the sense that you meant this…or are feeling this…” 99% of the time my intuition is correct.
Just like level 2, this is great for having difficult conversations, and so supportive for relationships. Imagine never hearing again, “you never listen!” Not only will you listen to what they say, you will feel what they are saying and perhaps not saying.
That is how you practice strengthening this level. You trust your gut instinct and ask them if what you are sensing is correct. Also asking them to tell you more and reflect back to them what you are hearing and feeling can be supportive. You are listening to truly understand them.
This doesn’t mean you will always agree. Listening to understand gives you an insight into why someone believes what they believe, feels what they feel, or thinks what they think.
From this place, you can have more meaningful conversations. Or you get to a place where you can say, “I may not agree with them, but I have a better understanding now and why they feel the way they feel, believe in what they believe, think what they think, or do what they do.”
To understand someone is to know how they feel and why they behave in the way that they do.
Supportive Sisterhood Podcast Episode: Having Meaningful Conversations, Even When They Are Difficult