A Better Way to Listen (Or, the Problem with “Active Listening”)

“To listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well.” 

— John Marshall (1755-1835), Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Listening from 11,630 kilometers away.

When I started working for interstory’s parent company, Bon Education, in the summer of 2016, I was living in Chicago. The majority of my team was located nine time zones away in Dubai. So, for six months, I didn’t really know what my colleagues looked like. I mean, I’d seen photos of them. We spoke over Skype almost daily, but we didn’t use video. 

When we interacted over Skype, that meant that I didn’t have to worry about what I looked like. Specifically, I didn’t have to worry about whether I looked like I was “paying attention.” During our meetings, I could do whatever I needed to do to really listen. I could close my eyes to picture something. I could stand up and stretch. I could do things that I probably wouldn’t do in person because these behaviors would be considered rude, even if they were strategies that actually helped me listen more fully. 

And yes, there are trade-offs. I didn’t have access to my colleagues’ body language. Yet, I was surprised at how much easier it was to really listen, to really get immersed in a conversation when I wasn’t focused on physically managing my own impression.

It wasn’t until December of that year that we actually met face-to-face.

Have you ever seen your favorite podcast host in person? It was kind of like that – surreal. I was used to these people existing as disembodied voices. Now, I was encountering not only their physicality but my own. 

I had to remember to make eye contact, nod, use open body language. Remembering to “look like” I was paying attention was, ironically, slightly distracting. It wasn’t a huge deal, but there was a palpable shift. 

Meeting and working together in person was incredibly valuable, and yet, when I flew back home and we reconnected over Skype – sans video – the world felt right again.

There’s got to be a better way.

Later, I began digging into the topic of listening.

It goes without saying that listening is one of the key communication skills that can make or break team performance. We all know that. Yet, for the most part, it’s a topic that we don’t think about very deeply.

With that in mind, here’s a little pop quiz! Define the word “listen.”

It’s harder than you’d think, right? Even though I know intellectually that listening is about attention, in practice, it’s easy to mistake listening as a collection of skills geared toward making the speaker feel like s/he is being heard: Nod. But not like a bobblehead. Paraphrase. But not like a robot. Ask questions. But make sure they’re open-ended. Make eye contact. But not in a creepy way.

The problem with active listening is that even though active listening asks us to focus on the other person, it doesn’t teach us how. It emphasizes superficial indicators of listening at the expense of real comprehension.

Luckily, there are already some great frameworks out there for listening that do explore what happens inside of us when we listen. In the course of our research, our team found three particularly powerful and unexpected approaches to listening. Interestingly, none of these approaches are about how to comport yourself while listening. Instead, they’re all about awareness and attention. Specifically:

  1. Awareness of why you’re listening
  2. Awareness of what you’re focusing on
  3. Awareness of how you’re focusing on it

Framework 1: The jackal and the giraffe.

Creator of the practice of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg (1934-2015) was a mediator who dedicated his life to resolving conflict between some of the most war-torn parts of the world. Rosenberg once said, “every message, regardless of form or content, is an expression of a need,” and he believed that people resorted to violence when they did not have effective strategies for expressing and getting their needs met. He spent his life training people around the world on how to listen to what others needed rather than the words they used. Rosenberg saw listening as a strategy for resolving conflict and connecting with others, and he taught that there were two ways to listen:

  • First, one can listen with “jackal ears.” When jackals listen, they hear blame and judgment. This, Rosenberg said, is how most people listen, and it leads to conflict.
  • Alternatively, one can listen with “giraffe ears,” which he named after the land animal with the largest heart. Rosenberg describes giraffe language as “the language of the heart.” When we don giraffe ears, we hear needs and feelings. We hear what is alive in the other person.

For more: Rosenberg on listening

Framework 2: Me, you and the space between.

Our team at interstory is heavily influenced by the practice of coaching. Our CEO Anna and our Creative Director Chris are both trained in the Co-Active Coaching method. As coaches, when they listen, their focus is on growth, development and empowerment. Guided by the Co-Active Coaching method, they think about listening at three different levels:

  • Level 1 is the “Me Filter.” This is a self-absorbed type of listening in which the listener only hears her/his own inner voice and is more tuned in to her/his own experience than to the other person or what is happening around her/him.
  • Level 2 is the “You Filter.” At this level, the listener is laser-focused on the other person’s words and experience to the exclusion of everything else.
  • Level 3 is the “Space Filter.” Here, the listener softens her/his focus. The listener is attuned to her/his own intuitions (Level 1), the nuances of what the other person is saying (Level 2) and the underlying mood or energy in the room.

For more: The three levels of co-active listening

Framework 3: Presencing the future.

Theory U is a method for helping groups imagine and co-create possible futures. Theory U provides a roadmap for these transformative journeys, helping teams leave behind what was and move into new ways of being. Listening is a necessary part of the journey, and it happens at four progressively deeper levels:

  • Level 1 is “downloading,” or listening to what one already knows. As a result, the group merely reconfirms its worldview.
  • Level 2 is “factual listening,” or listening with an open mind. Like scientists, group members look for disconfirming data in order to see the situation with fresh eyes.
  • Level 3 is “empathic listening,” or listening with an open heart. The group must overcome its cynicism in order to sense that another way might be possible.
  • Level 4 is “generative listening,” or listening with an open will. If the group is able to overcome its fears, this is where the group connects with (or, in the language of Theory U, “presences”) the emerging future possibility.

For more: The four levels of listening in Theory U

The takeaway: Attention + Quality = Impact.

Whether you are aware of it or not, you create an impact each time you listen. The type and strength of this impact is determined by three factors:

  • Why are you listening? (e.g., to resolve conflict, support someone’s growth, generate new possibilities)
  • What are you listening for? (e.g., needs, space, the emerging future)
  • How are you listening? (e.g., empathically, with a soft focus, with courage)

In any given moment, there are many reasons to listen, there is much to listen for and there are many ways to listen. What’s most important to recognize is that we have choice in both the what and the how of listening. When we learn to control these two levers (what we choose to focus on and how we choose to listen), we learn to create impact through listening. 

This can all be expressed through the following equation:

Attention of Listening + Quality of Listening = Impact of Listening

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