Intentional Listening Means Being Curious

Are we listening? Maybe. But how?  

Chances are good that we don’t think much about how we listen. We just do it as we always have. Maybe when we were younger, we were told to be quiet while someone else was speaking.  Maybe we listen harder when we hear someone purposefully whispering or talking about us.  The truth is, we generally don’t listen with the intention to do it well or to be helpful.  

When we don’t know how to or don’t try to listen well, the conversation may not often go much beyond small talk. We may divert the conversation away from what the speaker wanted to say or cut it off before something important is said. We may even be unhelpful when we divert the conversation back to ourselves.  

If you’re thinking listening is hard with certain people, keep reading, there is good news!  The good news is that to have curiosity in a conversation is simply a relief!  It means that you don’t need the answers. You can slow down and relax into the conversation, and simply rely on your innate sense of curiosity.

The first step to listening mastery is to be aware of our tendencies. In other words, knowing how we usually listen. Once we know that, we can try to improve it. Having a framework helps, of course!  So, here’s the framework we teach at TeamCatapult.

There are three levels of listening, according to “Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives” by Henry and Karen Kimsey-House.

  • Level I is called “Internal Listening”
  • Level II is called “Focused Listening”
  • Level III is called “Global Listening”

Internal Listening  

This is the most common form, so you may recognize it.  While we’re listening to someone else, we’re actually paying attention to our own thoughts. Our responses tend to be about ourselves, not the other person.  Some examples are:

A: “I just went to Spain last week.”

B: “Oh, nice! I love Spain! I was there about 3 years ago.”

And, if we do ask a question, it tends to ask for data, something the person can answer pretty easily, usually with a “yes” or “no”.

A: “I was in Barcelona”

B: “Oh, did you go to the Sagrada Familia? That’s my favorite place there.”

Here is a work-related example of Level 1 listening:

A: “I need to talk to you about my team.”

B: “You and everyone else. My teams are falling behind this week too.”

A: “I’d like to try something new.”

B: “Have you already talked to John about it?”

Focused Listening

The objective is to listen for meaning (content, empathy, clarification, collaboration).  If we ask a question, it continues the thread that was already started and hopefully, causes the person to share again.

A: “I just went to Spain last week.”

B: “Oh, nice!  What attracted you to Spain?”

A: “My son just finished a semester there.”

B: “Wonderful. How did he like it?”

And, a work-related example of Level II listening:

A: “I need to talk to you about my team.”

B:  “Okay, what’s going on?”

A: “I’d like to try something new.”

B: “Say more, I’m curious.”

Notice that in Level II listening, the focus remains on the person speaking. The listener may have thoughts about how the topic relates to him or her, but still keeps the focus on the other person.

Global Listening

The conversation objective is to listen for depth (intent, emotion and intuition). At this level of listening, sometimes we hear what isn’t said, or we notice something about the way in which something is said.   We may notice facial expressions, changes in tone or body language.

A: “I just went to Spain last week.”

B: “Oh, nice!  What attracted you to Spain?”

A: “My son just finished a semester there.”

B:  “I noticed your whole face lit up when you said that!”

A: “I always wanted my children to have an international experience, so I’m just thrilled!”

And, for that work conversation:

A: “I need to talk to you about my team.”

B: “Okay. You seem stressed. What’s going on?”

A: “Yeah, I am very stressed out.”

B: “How could I help you release some stress before we talk about your team?”

As an Agile coach, we aim to be helpful and being helpful requires careful and intentional listening. That’s why it’s a fundamental skill to master.  Not only will the skill of listening help you in professional settings, but it works wonders with a spouse, children and friends too. It starts with listening in ways that suspend judgment and communicate curiosity and respect.

When we master listening, we are able to reach new levels of conversations, likely deeper and more meaningful ones. We can even help someone learn about him or herself too.  This is important because our role as Agile Coach is not to teach or give answers, but to facilitate self-awareness and draw out the knowledge, creativity and resourcefulness that is already within someone.

Although the “Global Listening” may not feel natural at first, the good news is that it’s possible to practice the three levels of listening in every single conversation!  Notice what level you usually use, then challenge yourself to move up one level and stay there for as long as you can.  If you slip back into level I by talking about yourself, that’s okay. It’s common. Just notice it and go back to level II listening, staying focused on the other person.

As you practice this, notice how the conversation goes. Does it feel different than other conversations?  In what way? Notice how much you can learn about the other person.  Did they tell you anything surprising? Notice where the other person takes the conversation and remain curious. As we coaches like to say… “Notice what you notice!”

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