How to Advance Your Listening Skills

My colleagues and I always talk and teach about the importance of knowing your audience, and preparing for your work communication correctly. And at the center of that work is the ability to clarify the message and “the ask,” to try to anticipate what the audience will care about, and the questions or objections they may have.

All of these challenges become significantly easier to achieve when we listen well, and when we listen for the correct things. So let’s reflect a bit on our own listening behaviors, and ask ourselves some direct questions.

How well do you listen? Let’s start there. And please be honest. I ask because most people, when they are allegedly “listening” are really just quietly thinking about what they want to say next. Most people are daydreaming or multi-tasking in their own head when they are in meetings or on conference calls. We are all guilty of this, myself included. But when we allow ourselves to be distracted and when we don’t listen well, we are giving up our best chance to understand the people around us, and gather information that may be helpful in the next meeting, conference call, presentation or conversation. In other words, we are making all of this “know your audience” stuff a LOT harder.

My colleagues and I think about listening on three levels:

  • Level 1: At the most basic level, good listening is about retention of facts, things you heard, details.
  • Level 2: The next step beyond that is to listen for more than just facts, but to listen and try to determine implication, and what might matter to your audience. You hear the facts, and you start to analyze what else might be important for your audience.
  • Level 3: The highest level of listening occurs when you absorb broad inputs — what people say, or DON’T say, how they say it, their facial expression and body language when they say it, etc. — and are able to consistently identify how people’s minds work, and how they will make decisions. At this highest level, you are absorbing everything about the moment, everything about the person, and you are completely mindful and present.

Listening at any level sucks up bandwidth… and if you are multi-tasking or are otherwise distracted, you simply have less bandwidth available for your listening. The higher the level of listening you aspire to in that moment, the more bandwidth you better have available. Because Level 3 listening takes up a lot of space in the brain. That level of listening may not always possible or practical, but when you can listen at the higher levels, you have serious competitive advantage.

In addition to the necessary bandwidth, listening at higher levels requires practice, just like any other important and desirable skill. You need to work at it, to perfect it. And the bottom line is this — the higher levels of listening are simply impossible when we allow ourselves to be distracted by our mobile devices, or whatever is on our computer screen. Distraction and multi-tasking are the enemies of good listening.

So let’s come back to some direct questions. Do you focus and listen to the people around you? And more importantly, what do you listen for? Are you just capturing facts and details? Or do you listen for more beyond that?

Think about it. Significant competitive advantage awaits.

Have a great day.

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Brett Slater

A book about change

The Latimer Corporation’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.