Without mindful listening it is simply not possible to extract what is important from what is said and to make the kind of connections that are needed for you to be effective as a leader who coaches. There is little point in perfecting your questioning skills question if you are not going to listen well – a question stops being powerful the moment you don’t pay attention to the answer.
Hearing is a physiological process. It is largely passive and happens automatically although – thankfully – you can sometimes choose to filter out those things you don’t want to hear and ignore them. Listening, on the other hand, comes about as a result of a choice to pay attention, and listening mindfully means that listening has become an integral part of who you are, how you do things, and how you communicate and interact. Listening mindfully implies that you activate your observational skills to the maximum and all of your senses, not just hearing, are receptive to what is going on around you.
According to Madelyn Burley–Allen in her book Listening – the Forgotten Skill, there are three levels of listening:
Level 3 is the type of listening where we pay the least attention to what the other person is saying as we are focussed on ourselves and our own interests. When this happens, we often follow the discussion only marginally, tuning out what the other person says and not really listening. Typically, we are looking for opportunities to jump in and express our own opinions.
In level 2, we hear the words but our understanding of them is only superficial. We focus on the logical elements of the content and tend to disregard the emotional aspects and intent behind what is being said. Misunderstandings are common as the attention level of the listener is still at a surface level.
Level 1 requires you to be more active, more present, more empathetic and to pay full attention to the multiple aspects of the other person’s communication, such as body language, feelings, thoughts and intentions. It implies being non–judgemental, and making an effort to see things from the other’s perspective (Burley-Allen, 1995).
In essence, this is the technique you will have heard of as active listening. This technique asks a number of things of the listener, who is encouraged to feed back what they hear to the speaker, restating, paraphrasing, and summarising what they have heard. The aim is to confirm not only that they have heard, but also that they have understood. Moreover, active listening also stresses the need for the listener to place themselves at the service of the speaker, demonstrating empathy and putting their own thoughts onto stand–by. The listener also must pay attention to their own non–verbal signals to reassure the speaker that they are being listened to with full attention.
When you want to become better at active listening, you generally start by practising it as a technique and you need to develop skills such as those mentioned above: restating, paraphrasing, and summarising. Like all new skills, it may take time to develop your expertise and you have to make a conscious effort to give it a go and follow the different steps. However, over time, you begin to see the results and appreciate the benefits. You also realise that you no longer have to work quite so hard at applying the different steps. It is at this point that you see the true value of this approach and a shift occurs. You go from using it as a technique to adopting it heart and soul as a way of really and truly listening. At this stage, active listening becomes much more effective. We would describe this shift as going from listening actively to listening mindfully; listening becomes a state of mind.
Adapted from “Coaching for Innovation” by Cristina Bianchi and Maureen Steele (2014, Palgrave McMillan) – learn to listen mindfully by following the 7 Day Programme for Mindful Listening in Chapter 5.
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You might also like this recent feature on the BBC website about mindfulness the Japanese way !