5 hallmarks of a great listener
So you think you are a great listener? Test yourself against these five traits and see how well you do. Give yourself a rating from 1 to 5 on each trait (1 is rarely or poorly expressed, 5 is habitually and permanently a part of the way you listen).
1. Quiet mind listening
Great listeners do so with a quiet mind. We have very small attentional budgets, and the more noise and conversation we have going on in our own heads, the less attention we have to devote to listening to another person. Given that attention on the other person, for the other person, is the currency of engagement, this is a critical characteristic of high- performing listeners.
Key reflection question: How quiet is your mind when you listen?
2. Full observational attention on the speaker
We have limits on how much attention we have to 'spend' (and it is far smaller than we might suspect). The more we spend attention on ourselves, the less we have for the speaker, and the lower the engagement, empowerment and true solution-finding. The best listeners are generous with their attention - they 'spend' as much as they have on the speaker, and do so by observing. Observing what they hear, what they see. This then gives conversational content for the listener to feed back to the speaker: "What I see/hear is..."
Key reflection questions: How much do you observe the speaker? How well could you reflect back to them succinct observations (not interpretations) of what they have said, or what you have seen?
3. Listening for the speaker, not for you the listener
The secret X-factor of engagement (or even influence or charisma) is the generous use of attention by the listener, for the speaker. When we detect that someone is listening to us for their benefit, our trust, engagement and/or connection with them falls. This is, indeed, the social default in our world. We rarely experience being listened to in any other way. Often, when somebody does listen to us for us, the effect is profound.
Key reflection question: How much of your listening is geared for you to gain something (eg an outcome for you or the speaker)?
4. Absence of agenda, judgment, assumption and/or advice
Unconditional respect and acceptance is most fully expressed (and experienced by the speaker) when the listener disengages from default positions of seeking a solution, giving advice or pushing an agenda. Such a listening attitude also creates a conversational environment absent of judgement, empowering the speaker to access their own solutions and confidence. In many ways, this point is a variation of point 3 above - if you display advice, agendas, assumptions or judgement, then you are really listening more for yourself than the speaker.
Key reflection questions: How aware are you of a your need for a particular outcome or agenda? How often do you seek to find a solution for the speaker? How often do you find yourself judging the speaker? What assumptions might be in play in your thinking?
5. High self-awareness
The best listeners observe the conversation much the same way as a coach might observe a football match - from some distance and/or elevation. This perspective allows the listener to have some, if not low levels, of attention on monitoring themselves for unhelpful emotions, agendas or thinking. This distance from the conversation allows observation to flourish.
Key reflection questions: When in a conversation, are you involved and 'in the game' (using the football metaphor) or are you connected to the person but distant and observational to the content (like a football coach)? How aware of yourself, your emotions and any emerging agendas, assumptions or advice?
How can better listening advantage you?
Coaches who want to coach well: It is an imperative of sound coaching that the coach listen deeply, observationally and without filters, agendas or judgement.
Leaders who want to have influence: many people in your workplace would think or say “Why should I listen to you if you won’t listen to me?” This is particularly true of Gen Y and younger people, including today’s students. When people are heard and acknowledged, the are more open, creative and resilient.
Parents who want to engage with teenagers (or any children): Parents, generally, are struggling to maintain a ‘grip’ on the development and management of their teenage children. The thing is, if your teenage kids are not listening to you now, it is almost too late. The time to demonstrate listening is at as early an age as possible, certainly before puberty. When children know that you listen to them, you have far greater influence on them as teenagers. All is not lost, but it does take greater effort and change by the parent to re-engage their teenage kids.
Teachers who want better student behaviour: When students know that a teacher listens, that the teacher accepts them as they are (unconditionally) and that teacher is there for them (encouraging) then they will work hard not to let this teacher down. Student management demands are far lower, and students are more engaged with the teacher (if not the content). Note how this all starts with listening .
So how did you go? A score of below 10 says that you need to spend some serious time addressing your listening skills - those around you would say that you don't acknowledge them well, or don't understand them deeply. They may also interpret your low listening connection as low respect.
Most people would score between 10 and 20 - if you are here, look to your lowest score and work on this aspect of your listening.
If you scored over 20, then you are indeed a deep and effective listener. Congratulations, you have high influence with others, and you are well respected.
1. Ask for some informal feedback from others around you on how well they percieve your performance in the above 5 traits. How does this compare with your self assessment? Where are the gaps? What actions arise?
- Theory U, by Otto Scharmer - http://www.ottoscharmer.com(he references 4 types of listening, download an outline of Theory U here)
- Why Listening Is So Much More Than Hearing - Seth S. Horowitz
- This TED video: