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Becoming a Leader Who Listens

Effective communication with your team has never been as important as it is today, with many teams working remotely since last year. Under any circumstances, the ability to effectively listen and communicate with your team is crucial to an organization’s success. Poor communication can derail even the best-laid plans. But with so many more opportunities for miscommunication given our distributed teams, the ability to effectively communicate has gone from a highly desired skill for managers to a non-negotiable, must-have tool for effective leadership.  

There is no shortage of options for communication technology designed for remote teams. But even the best-designed tools aren’t solving for the real issues, which lie in the lack of established group norms around communication, misconstruing brevity for clarity, not being savvy of our digital volume, and the failure of leadership to effectively listen. 

While there may be no digital replacement for the good, old-fashioned face-to-face conversation, high-performers who are primed to see the opportunity for growth in challenges will embrace this struggle as a chance to improve their leadership skills. Whether you continue to rely on modern communication tools to facilitate remote working or you are working at the next desk over from your teammate, strengthening your abilities as a listener will affect nearly all aspects of your role as a leader. 

The basic levels of listening

There are a few models that illustrate the different levels at which we listen to other people. Some frameworks show three levels of listening, others four, and some five or six. While some of these models get into more detail in the nuances of the levels, what they have in common is illustrating the varying levels of connection that occur between the participants in the conversation. Here is the simplest breakdown of the levels of listening that we engage in. 

Level one listening

This is listening only long enough to be able to say something in response. This listening has very little to do with what the other person is saying, and a lot to do with what you want to be able to say next. This is the most basic and natural level of listening and requires very little skill or training. Level one listening often causes misunderstandings because, at this level, key information can easily be missed in conversations. 

Level two listening 

This listening level is about being entirely focused on the other person, not distracted by anything else. Level two listeners are listening to everything the other person is saying and is not saying. This includes their feelings, their thoughts, their emotions, body language, and everything else about their communication style. For many of us, it is easy to get to this level with certain people we really admire or are comfortable with. The trick is to get to this level with everyone we communicate with. 

Level three listening

This level of listening is almost like “Level 2+.” You are fully engaged with what the other person is saying and feeling, but you are able to bring in your own sense of intuition to the conversation. You can pick up on something not being congruent with what the person is saying and what they are feeling or how they are acting. This is generally considered the highest level of learning and requires some practice to be able to get here with those you interact with as a leader. At level three, you are able to hear what people are trying to communicate despite what they are actually saying. 

Shifting your way of listening seems like an easy fix, but it takes work. With intention, practice, feedback, and more practice, leaders can master level three listening with their teams which will not only grow the important connections necessary for success, but with the unique conditions of remote work, will shore up the spaces where communication previously broke down. In improving upon listening skills, leaders not only set the tone for the rest of their team but also end up with empowered, more confident teammates. 

Two antennae

Another way of thinking about listening as a leader is to imagine having two antennae designed to pick up signals in a conversation. Carole Robin, Ph.D., an Advisor to Valor and co-author of Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships with Family, Friends, and Colleagues based on her legendary course on Interpersonal Dynamics at the Stanford Graduate School of Business uses the antennae model as a way for leaders to think about focusing on listening but not at the expense of their own contribution to the conversation. 

The first antenna is used to pick up all the signals coming from the other person. The second antenna is for picking up all the signals that are coming up for ourselves. If we only listen to one antenna, we run the risk of losing the connection between the two parties and the whole point of collaboration is moot. If you are lost in your own signal, then you’ve stopped listening to the other person. If you only listen to your first antenna, you run the risk of only hearing the other person and losing your own intuitions. 

Keeping your antennae finely tuned “will help you see every interaction with another person as an opportunity to learn,” says Robin. “Understanding our own triggers and issues as coaching leaders and doing our own work is essential in being able to effectively coach and lead our teams.” Failing to do so creates situations in which we might hear things differently than the way they are intended, further adding to the communication breakdown. 

By working on our listening skills, we not only can solve the communication problems on our teams, but also can grow as leaders because we are concurrently shifting the way we are experiencing the world. Being mindful of the methods we use when communicating with our teammates develops our skills of self-awareness, compassion, and understanding and can turn a point of friction into one of growth. As many teams shift toward fostering a culture of coaching throughout their organizations, listening and being listened to, reinforces the trust and collaboration that create the foundation of excellence required for successful, high-performing teams.

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