Getting Beyond Active Listening

As if listening weren’t enough, have you ever been told you need to do more than just listen – you should use “active listening?” Active listening is often described as suspending your thoughts and judgment or keeping an open mind about what the other person is saying. Our natural tendency is to pause just long enough to hear what the other person is saying, while formulating our opinion or comeback, then jump right in. These sort of demonstrate respect and are by all means fine.

What is Active Listening?

There are basically six principles to active listening.

1.Prepare yourself to listen.  Pause, relax, breathe, center yourself and turnoff your inner monologue. Let go of your preconceived ideas and opinions.

2. Remove distractions. Remove anything that might cause you to lose focus. Turn off email, lock your computer, send all calls to voicemail and turn the cellphone to do not disturb.

3. Stop talking. Listen more than you speak. This reminds me of kindergarten story time. Back to basics – put on your listening ears. Mark Twain said it best, “If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.”

4. Wait and watch for non-verbal communication. Focus on what is and isn’t said. Observe for additional information being communicated through physical movements.

  • Listen to tone.  Volume and tone add to what someone is saying and aid the individual in getting their message across. The exact same sentence can be said with differing tones and have two completely different meanings, intent and impact.
  • Listen for ideas, not just words. Stay neutral and try not to let your emotions get in the way. Listen for information and ideas that you can link together to gain a better understanding of the message being conveyed. Some are more articulate than others and some are more emotionally charged. Look for the nugget of wisdom and truth in what they are saying, not how they are saying it.

5. Put the speaker at ease. Keep their needs in mind and demonstrate that you are listening and understanding without interrupting. Use your own words to articulate your understanding and ensure alignment. Ask for clarification and seek alignment.

6. Be patient and let the speaker continue. A pause does not mean the speaker has finished. Let the speaker work through their thought process.

7. Avoid personal prejudice. Accents, physical movement, appearance, etc., can be distracting for example. Ask clarifying questions. Remain impartial.

8. Empathize. Their truth is their reality, whether you agree with it or not. Try to understand the other person’s perspective.

What is Generative Listening and Theory?

If we want to make significant change or confront a complex issue, we need to dive even deeper than active listening. In Collaboration or Collective Impact – What’s the Difference?, we look at moving a team into to action. One component to making this work is using generative listening.

Generative listening is risky because it requires we suspend our preconceived ideas, thoughts, agendas, feelings and knowledge aside to listen deeply and see what emerges. As leaders, this can be scary. We self-impose the notion that we are supposed to have all of the answers. We need to be gracious to ourselves – we are not omnipotent beings.

Beyond Active Listening

This excerpt from an episode of The Big Bang Theory demonstrates the difference between listening and active listening in a humorous manner. It also begs asking the question, “Is there something better than active listening?” The answer is yes. It is called generative listening and comes from Otto Scharmer’s “Four Levels of Listening and Conversing.”

The first level is called downloading. We listen from our habits. We are polite and look at things from our own lens, perspectives and beliefs. This is the collaboration process. We may accomplish things if there we are like-minded and able to reach quick consensus.

In the second level, factual, we start to listen from the outer edges of ourselves and see that there may be more than we know. Conversations sound more like a debate, taking sides and trying to convince others we are right.

We reach empathy in the third level. Dialogue begins and we inquire, wanting to learn more from others. How does that work and why? What does that mean? Can you please explain? This is the stage when we reach active listening.

Generative listening is the deepest level of listening. In this level, there is a collective creativity that occurs. We open ourselves up to what is possible that was previously unknown to us. Reaching this stage is required to have the breakthrough to reach collective impact.

Related articles:

Active Listening is What Happened When I Gave Them My Knees

Listening is Becoming a Lost Art

Making a Difference Through Listening

Charice Pidcock is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Avatar photo Leah Anderson

Thanks for sharing these insights about listening! We can become too focused on being heard in the workplace, or making sure we have a voice but taking a step back to work on our listening skills is equally as important (especially for managers and leaders!).

Avatar photo Emily Jarvis

I have always felt there was a piece missing from active listening, so this post was really helpful in seeing the next evolution in understanding and listening. Thanks!