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Good Listening Is More Than Simply Paying Attention

Paying Attention Is Not Listening

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” – Epictetus

“The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” – Ram Dass

“Listen more than you talk. Nobody learned anything by hearing themselves speak.” – Richard Branson

Most of us are very familiar with these sayings. They teach us that, to be a good listener, you simply need to avoid speaking. Remain silent, nod your head, make eye contact, don’t interrupt, and…voila! You’re magically an attentive listener.

These quotes resonate with us because they confirm what we were taught as children in our earliest school days. Good listening = paying attention. And many of us have carried that philosophy with us into adulthood. One way this is showing up in the workplace is through a big push for active listening—a strategy with countless models and sources, largely centered around maintaining attention and focusing on what you’re hearing.

As executive speaker coaches, we saw a lot of this at the beginning of the pandemic. Many of our executive clients reached out to ask, “How can I be there for my people right now?” Many of them were asking what they could say to make their teams feel comforted and assured. They wanted to exhibit an executive presence that was both strong and warm. We helped these leaders create presentations, written correspondence, and even short videos to express their solidarity during such a critical time.

But when we challenged our clients with a follow-up question, “Are you also listening to them?,” we got a lot of inquisitive expressions. They were surprised to learn that listening is a major part of the presence they were seeking.

“Of course!” they said. “When someone is talking to me, I always eliminate distractions and give them my full attention.” Well sure, those are good things to do, but paying attention is the bare minimum. As we were taught, paying attention, even actively listening, makes you a decent person, but not necessarily a good listener.

Simply showing the signs of being a good listener—the ones we were taught as children—isn’t enough. As adults, we can do better. Click To Tweet

Being a good listener means listening in a way that meets the goals and needs of the speaker. In most cases, that involves a lot more than nodding your head and making eye contact, especially in the workplace. It takes critical analysis and observation to figure out what your communication partner needs, but you can start to become a better listener by asking yourself this fundamental question:

“What does the speaker want from me?”

This is something most people don’t think of when they’re about to listen to someone. We tend to focus on, “What’s in it for me?” or “What’s the speaker going to say that could impact my job?” We rarely, if ever, think about what we can give the speaker when we’re listening.

As speakers, most of us are willing to consider what our audience needs to hear from us. When we’re crafting our content, we think about what we can say to motivate them, persuade them, or inform them. When we focus on the needs of our audience, we tend to get a better outcome because audiences respond well when the message they’re receiving connects with them.

Speakers are no different. As listeners, if we start to ask ourselves what the speaker wants, and then deliver on those goals, we can expect better outcomes, too.

While you might think there are infinite responses to the question, “What does the speaker want from me?” there are really only four. Click To Tweet

In the workplace, speakers either want you to:

  • Immerse
  • Discern
  • Advance
  • Support

Let’s break each one down…

Listen to Immerse

There are many workplace situations in which the speaker needs you to absorb the material they’re delivering without comment or judgement. When the speaker’s message is meant to inform or simply entertain, being a good listener means learning the information and soaking it all in. If they say something like, “I’m here to give you an update today,” or “Sit back and enjoy!” that’s your cue to be an Immerse Listener. In this case, your job is to take notes or mentally catalogue the information you’re hearing. You might ask clarifying questions or confirm what you’ve heard for the purposes of understanding, but your main goal is to be a content sponge.

Listen to Discern

We all need guidance at certain points in our day-to-day worlds. When the people we work with aren’t sure what’s working and what’s not, they’re often looking for someone to consider the strengths and weaknesses of their situation or project. Being a good listener in this case means helping the speaker find red flags and pinpoint positives. If they say something like, “I need some feedback on this,” or “I’m not sure if this makes sense,” that’s your cue to be a Discern Listener. In this case, your job is to respond with words and actions that will help the speaker unstick the stuck. You will uncover the benefits and drawbacks of their situation or suggest avenues they might not have considered on their own.

Listen to Advance

When the people we work with are overwhelmed or pressed for time, they’re often looking for someone to unburden them or lighten their load. Being a good listener in this case means listening in a way that will move people, projects, and processes to the next step. If they say something like, “I don’t think I’ll have time to finish all of this,” or “I don’t know how I’m going to keep this project moving,” you might take on some of that work yourself or delegate tasks to help the speaker get to the finish line.

Listen to Support

Everyone experiences challenging workdays. But we also enjoy moments of celebration at work. While on opposite spectrums, both situations lead to a desire for human connection. We want comfort when things are rough, and we want congratulations and celebration when things are great. Being a good Support listener means acknowledging and mirroring the speaker’s feelings. If they say something like, “I’m having a horrible day,” or “I have the best news!” that’s your cue to be a Support Listener. In this case, your job is to respond with words and actions that will validate the feelings of the speaker, whether that’s to commiserate with them or celebrate with them. Your job is to either be the confidant or the cheerleader, depending on the context and situation.

Listening with Empathy Takes Work

Our work lives are dynamic. Speakers need different things at different times, and it’s not always easy to figure out what their goals are. But if you start by asking yourself, “What does the speaker want from me?” you’re well on your way to becoming a more empathetic listener.

Each of these four goals (Immerse, Discern, Advance, and Support) puts empathy at the heart of your listening interactions, because it encourages you to truly understand what your communication partner needs. This style of listening paints a very different picture from that of the listener who simply pays attention. Whether you need to Immerse, Discern, Advance, or Support, you’re being empathetic to the speaker simply by adapting your listening style to meet their goals. And as an added bonus, you might just elevate your own presence, too.

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Illustrated by Cameron Flett