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Mastering Powerful Listening


Bob is an energetic leader in a large firm. His days are filled with a multitude of meetings and conferences. Many of these meetings are his weekly one-on-one sessions with his direct reports and peers. Bob has on several occasions expressed how important and valuable it is for him to do these weekly one-on-one meetings with his employees and colleagues to give them space to share their concerns, brainstorm ideas, and provide update on their accomplishments. Yet, despite Bob’s investment of this time, his direct reports and peers often feel frustrated in those meetings. For them, these one-on-one sessions with Bob are unproductive and rarely allow them to be meaningfully heard and discuss what they need to, or have prepared for the meeting.


Sounds familiar? The challenge is that many leaders, like Bob, despite their best intentions, lack the ability to create and hold space for meaningful conversations and connections. In these situations, a fast-moving, highly energetic leader might feel that they are serving the other party better by taking up the time to share their own thoughts and opinions, or worse might not even realize that they have hijacked the time to do all the talking versus truly, deeply listening to the other person. That is the art of powerful listening, which is the foundation for effective communications, and ultimately successful leadership.


So how do you master this ability? It starts with recognizing that there are three levels of listening that you could engage in during any conversation:


Level 1: When we are communicating, we are often only listening at Level 1 which I call "listening to speak". We are listening mainly to validate our own assumptions and we are not even fully listening – we are multitasking and preparing our responses. This type of listening is very self-focused and is about furthering one’s own agenda. It does not generate meaningful dialog that leads to more trust and broadening of perspectives. In fact, it might over time dis-engage and demotivate the very people you are trying to appease and connect with.


Level 2: The next level of listening, which I call "listening to learn", is factual listening and to gain information about the other person’s issues and opinions. At this level, we are listening with an open mind and seeking to understand where the other person is coming from and what is important to them. Listening at Level 2 can be powerful as it allows us to better understand someone else’s motivations, reality, perspectives, and helps build empathy and deeper connection.


Listening at Level 2 requires practice. It involves intentionally coming into the conversation with the goal to give the other person your full attention. If you find yourself drifting to Level 1 listening, take a few deep breaths and simply let go of your thoughts and judgements.


Level 3: The last level of listening is "empathetic listening", and this is the deepest form of listening. Here we are listening with an open heart to truly understand the emotions and feelings that are driving the other person’s position and what they need. A Level 3 listener not only hears the words being spoken, but is also attuned to the energetic shifts and non-verbal cues in the conversation. It requires the listener to be fully present to notice the tone and body language of the speaker.


Similar to Level 2, Level 3 listening requires practice and persistent focus on gathering input from the speaker in all forms, verbal and nonverbal. Playback is a powerful tool for practicing and mastering Level 3 listening. It involves the following five easy steps:


  1. Find a practice partner and have them share with you an issue, challenge, or an idea for 3 – 5 minutes

  2. Listen in silence and stay quiet… Just hold the space

  3. Summarize and playback what they have shared, using their own words

  4. Mirror their body language and reflect the feelings and values you “heard” and observed

  5. Ask them for their feedback; ask them to confirm or deny the non-verbal information you picked up on

Not all situations call for Level 2 or Level 3 listening. Great communicators are flexing between all three levels depending on the needs & goals of the discussion, and the flow of the dialog. They know when to apply what level of listening to optimize the conversation.


However, for leaders who want to build authentic and trusting relationships, the ability to master Level 2 and Level 3 listening will be crucial to their success. It is the best way to meet the needs of your colleagues and employees, while inspiring them to achieve shared goals and vision.

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