by Leslie Peters, author of “Finding Time to Lead: Seven Practices to Unleash Outrageous Potential“
My team and I recently led a two-day training course at a 120,000-person company. At the beginning of courses like these, we always ask attendees: “What do great leaders do?”
Do you know what makes it into the top three answers 90 percent of the time?
Great leaders listen.
It sounds so simple, right?
One of the most observable traits of a great leader is that they listen more than they talk. And they don’t just listen; they listen well. But today’s most successful leaders listen in ways you’d never expect. They tap into three distinct levels of listening to connect with the people around them: faux, focused, and epic listening. Each is good in its own way.
Level 1: Faux Listening.
The first, and most common, level of listening is faux listening. This is when we look like we’re listening (we might even be leaning in and nodding — things we’re taught to do to demonstrate that we’re listening) but, in our heads, we’re thinking about what we’ll say, or about a story that relates to what the speaker is saying, or about a witty or insightful comment we can make about the issue at hand.
In this moment, we’re thinking about ourselves and how we appear to others. We’re not listening to what the other person is saying.
Sometimes faux listening is fine. Talking about where we’ll go for lunch, or when we’ll have that meeting, or how we feel about a particular sports team or movie — these are topics that benefit from the give and take of personal stories and associations. Sometimes, though, this level of listening is not enough.
Level 2: Focused Listening.
When someone is talking to us about the importance of a project or a situation a team is dealing with, a different kind of listening is key: focused listening.
Focused listening happens when you’re taking in each word and thinking about what these words mean to the person who is speaking them. You’re not thinking about what you’ll say in response, and you’re not waiting to jump in with a similar personal story. You’re only listening.
Picture how you listen when someone is giving you directions or telling you how to get that equation to add up in a spreadsheet. There’s no room for your mind to wander. There’s only room for listening.
Focused listening is a powerful leadership tool because it provides space for people to work through issues on their own. As a leader, encouraging your people to work through issues is often the best support you can offer, both in the moment and for when your staff needs to solve problems in the future. Statements like, “Tell me more about that” or “Wow. What did that look like?” can help a person continue his or her exploration of a situation. Nine times out of ten, people will come to their own answers, and these answers are always better than the ones you would have given them.
Level 3: Epic Listening.
The third type of listening is epic listening, the deepest level of listening.
Epic listening is when you tune in to the emotional state of the person talking. You hear the words, but you also get beyond the words to what might be motivating the person to speak them. Epic listening is most useful in times of intense effort, crisis, sadness, agitation, joy, or pride.
Epic listening enables us to get at the real issue, instead of spending time dealing with the symptoms of the issue. Epic listening can save tremendous time and effort.
One of the leaders in our training told a story about how epic listening saved her weeks of frustration. One of her direct reports came into her office agitated and ready for a fight. He told her that his counterpart in another division wasn’t getting work done, and it was making it impossible for him to get his work done in the time allotted. He was angry about the timing of the workflow, his people were frustrated, and everyone felt the goal was ridiculous anyway.
This leader recognized an opportunity to tune in to his words while simultaneously tuning in to the emotions and motivations behind them. She quietly listened as he told her about all the things everyone was doing wrong and about what was ridiculous about everything in the company. When he finished, rather than jumping in to solve the issue (or telling him to stop whining), she calmly replied, “It sounds to me like you’re really overwhelmed.”
He sighed, sank into his chair and said, “I am really overwhelmed.”
They were then able to have a conversation about how to tackle these feelings, which included how to deal with his counterpart and his team’s frustrations. By focusing on the core issue, this leader was able to help her employee manage the stressful situations swirling around him on his own.
Three Simple Steps to Expert Listening.
Listening isn’t easy. People in leadership positions are, by nature, problem-solvers, and it can be hard to hold back from jumping in to help. But there are three simple steps you can use to launch your listening practice:
1. Start by simply noticing how often, when someone else is talking, you’re thinking about what you’ll say in response. You might be surprised.
2. Cultivate the art of asking questions that encourage people to continue with their thoughts. Use simple questions, like: “Tell me more about that…” or “I’m curious, what do you think motivated you to take that step?” or “What do you think you learned?”
3. Picture your brain as a whiteboard. When you start having thoughts about a story you can tell or a comment you can make, wipe it clean like a whiteboard. Stay focused on the person talking and clear your thoughts.
Each level of listening — faux, focused, or epic — is a conscious choice. Now that you know there are different levels of listening, and that each has its place, you can choose which to use when. It’s worth the effort!
Leslie Peters brings a no-B.S., straight-talk perspective to leaders in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, including U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation, Flexera Software, and NeighborWorks America. She is the Founder, CEO, and Chief Facilitator at Elements Partnership, a consulting practice that helps people and organizations get unstuck, and is the author of “Finding Time to Lead: Seven Practices to Unleash Outrageous Potential“.