You Just Can’t Buy a Listening Aid: You Actually Have to Listen

Known for his Dale Carnegie training expertise, Terry Siebert is writing to inspire leaders to reach their greatest potential. Leadership, today more than ever, may mean the difference between closing the doors or opening new markets. Every month, he'll post help with mindset, business tools and more. Read Full Bio

In last month’s blog, we talked about the many ways we communicate. This month we tackle the other half of the communication process — listening.

Has this scenario ever happened to you? You are on the telephone with someone. You’re answering a question, which they asked, and you pause. At that moment you hear clicking on the other end of the line from the keyboarding of your phone partner. You ask a question. They say: "Huh?" or "Sorry, I wasn’t listening." This kind of communication breakdown is just all too typical in today’s fast-paced world. It is also a sad commentary on the ability and, more important, the real desire people have in listening to others. Let’s take a look at the different levels of listening:

LEVEL 1 — Not Listening at All
The scenario above is a prime example of this ground level of listening. At this level, there is not even an attempt to hide the fact that you are not paying attention to the other person. The reality is that a great deal of communication and "listening" actually takes place at this level. It is especially prevalent in phone conversations, yet is also done when people are in meetings. For example, how many times have you seen other people involved in side discussions, while you are presenting. Listening at this level often borders on rudeness.

LEVEL 2 — Pretending to Listen
The family rooms of America are a primary arena for this type of communication. One member of the family is surfing through channels and "listening" to their partner at the same time. All of a sudden the speaker asks: "What did I just say?" After a feeble grumble or two, the "listener" admits that he/she had their attention on the TV, definitely not the discussion.

The same thing often happens when an amateur salesperson "listens" to the customer, but is really rehearsing a great presentation, while the customer talks. My wife and I will never forget being in an automobile showroom, hearing the fine details of the child restraints for infants. Our youngest was 13 at the time. Help me understand.

LEVEL 3 — Selective Listening
Many of us can probably relate to the previous comments. It is probably fair to say that the majority of listening does not take place at the first two levels. The area where most people excel is in this area of selective listening. Every one of us refines our personal listening filters as we move about our different environments. The person who is in sales manages to screen the cost conscious message of the controller. The CEO who only likes (and therefore only hears) good news cannot understand the employee attitude survey that indicates wide gaps in communication between management and associates. A customer "defects" to the competition because company members did not listen and respond to the real issues. In situations where conflict is a major issue, there is sometimes an unwritten rule that says: "Only listen to respond with my point of view. Never admit that there might be merit in the other message." Most listening probably takes place at this level sometimes with a smaller filter, sometimes with a very thick one. The challenge of real communication is to take the next step.

LEVEL 4 — Really Listening
The biggest difference between levels 3 and 4, is the not so subtle difference between "really listening to" what the other is saying and, not "listening for" how you want to respond. This is not the habit of most of us and requires genuine, person-focused concentration. The essence of this idea has a lot to with feedback. For example, let’s go back the conflict situation, which we discussed above. Rather than listen for response openings, before any response can be given, the listener must be able to articulate (not necessarily agree with) the message of the speaker. By this very process, real listening provides a tremendous potential to actually understand where the other person is. That is the heart of this level listening to understand. If more give-and-take took place with this type of focus, maybe we wouldn’t hear the lament of Cool Hand Luke as often: "What we have here is a failure to communicate!"

LEVEL 5 — Empathetic Listening
Listening at this level is not often required. However, we are all creatures of emotion, as well as logic. When emotions are high, empathy can be critically important. The little girl or boy who has ever been hurt and gone to a comforting mom or dad knows what this is all about. On a different plane, some business people are fortunate to have a mentor who is not hesitant to ask the tough questions, to listen for emotion as well as words, and to really help generate a deeper sense of self-understanding.

Albert Einstein is probably most famous for his other formula: E=mc2. His formula, however, is more appropriate to this discussion. He said that if A=Success, then A=X+Y+Z. X=Work, Y=Play, and Z=Keeping Your Mouth Shut! Perhaps we can all get a little closer to success in communication by starting with this formula and really listening to each other!

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