We’ve heard a lot about listening during this presidential campaign season. Candidates like Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Ted Cruz went on official “listening tours,” while others held intimate “town hall” meetings between rowdy campaign rallies. The candidates know that listening is one of the most effective communication tools we have. While they manage to do plenty of talking too, their greatest power may come from saying absolutely nothing at all.
Listening is an essential leadership skill. Outside of food and shelter, a human being’s greatest need is to be loved and heard. Listening has a profound impact and requires few resources beyond time and will. The challenge is to listen well.
I witnessed the most extraordinary demonstration of listening at a board retreat I facilitated recently in Canada. When I entered the room, I knew the meeting would be different. The walls were covered from floor to ceiling in white paper. A graphic artist explained her process for visually transcribing the activities of the meeting for team visioning and strategic planning.
Let me tell you one thing — this woman was no stenographer. Far from merely retelling the facts, she created a powerful story, all while managing to be fully present and listen deeply to what was happening in the room. For three hours she illustrated the progression of ideas and interconnections between them, selecting colors, textures, shapes and shades to enhance their meaning. She not only heard but interpreted, her powerful large scale imagery moving the group together towards a goal.
Ironically, the graphic artist was modeling the exact leadership principal I was endeavoring to teach to the members of the board — how to connect with others. We’re not leading when we go it alone. The strength of our connections is important. Hillary Clinton’s “listening tour” provided her the opportunity to educate herself about issues affecting voters. More important to the success of her campaign, it also afforded her an opportunity to build relationships with members of the American public. Connect with others and you build your organization. Connect with others and you win their vote. Your ability to strengthen these connections hinges on the quality of your listening. When was the last time you listened well?
Levels of Listening
Laura Whitworth describes three levels of listening in her excellent book, Co-Active Coaching. Most listening occurs at level one. You can hear the other person’s words but you’re still inside your own head.
What’s in it for me? How do I relate to this? Do I agree or disagree?
Level two takes you down to a place of greater connection with the speaker. You’re focused, tuned in, and primed to help.
How can I do? What advice can I give? What question will I ask next?
Level three listening means receiving the words and letting yourself go. The inner advisor quiets and you take in both the literal meaning and the wider implications. You hear what the speaker is saying and not saying. You stop searching for advice and let intuition kick in. When you listen at level three, listening alone can be more powerful than the best advice.
Of course, it’s not realistic to stay at level three forever. The best coaches know how to move in and out of each level: dropping down and pulling back up, dropping down and pulling back up. But the longer you can stay at level three, the deeper the connection you’ll build and the greater the information you’ll glean, all with the same quantity of time and resources. Getting to level three is the challenge.
Getting to Level Three
#1. Eliminate distractions
First, you have to shut it down. If you have a device with an on/off button, like the one you’re holding now, place it out reach. Curate a space that promotes focus. For coaching sessions that I conduct over the phone, I like to use an old school landline. Next to the phone I’ve moved a dedicated chair that I only use for coaching calls. My regular office area is a creative space and replete with distractions. Listening requires good spaces.
#2. Create a pause practice
I am dedicated to creating a pause practice — carving out mindful periods of transition before and after my work. Whether it’s coaching, facilitation or teaching, I’ve found that taking a moment to reset allows me to approach my work with greater calm and focus. Whether it’s deep breathing, verbalizing an intention, or taking a walk around the block, there’s nothing like moving the body to quiet the mind.
#3. Respect yourself
Lastly, I believe that it’s important to finish your own stuff first. To honor others we have to honor ourselves. Do a brain dump before a session to ensure you’ve considered all of the important tasks you need to address that day. Write down stuff that floats into your mind so it doesn’t hijack your attention. As the Chinese proverb goes, “the palest ink is better than the sharpest memory.” And if a client calls a few minutes early and you’re wrapping up a personal task, it’s ok to say: You are really important to me. Give me three minutes to finish something up and I’ll be with you 100%. All of you is far more valuable than some of you.
Effective listening can be learned, and when practiced has the power to transform. Listening affirms the value of the person being heard, and the inherent value of listening as a sufficient end. As we move into the general election, the strongest candidate will not only have the most eloquent words to share, but the humility, strength and focus to listen deeply to the call of the American people.