5 Choices of Listening: Intentional Leaders Choose Wisely

It is no secret that effective leadership requires strong listening skills. However, most of us are never taught how to listen to understand. As leaders, we focus on how well we speak and good listening becomes assumption, a skill most of us take for granted and believe we do well. Spoiler alert: We don't!

Think about it - how often have you tuned someone out when they are talking to you? You see their lips move yet you are not connecting with the words they are saying, waiting for their lips to stop moving so you can jump in with the ideas you want to talk about or give solutions to problems you want to fix or solve. As a result, we miss out on what is being said and solve or fix "problems" that often don't exist, shut down new possibilities or opportunities, and disengage team members along the way. As leaders, understanding your teams, clients and colleagues is business 101. You can't understand others if you don't intentionally listen to them. The good news is we are all born with the ability to actively listen, when we CHOOSE to do so.

The Five Listening Choices we always have
If we want to understand the perspectives of others, to be respectful of them, we need to intentionally choose how we listen to them. When we are fully present in the moment, ABSORBing what is being said to us, we can choose how we listen. Rather than simply two listening choices of listening or not, we believe we actually have five listening choices whenever we are in conversation with another person. These choices result in how we receive and process the information being provided.

Listening Choice 1: Ignore the Speaker
In Choice 1, we choose not to listen to the speaker. We may hear noise, but rather than paying attention to the words, we are focused on other things, compiling a to-do list, thinking about a plan for later, reading e-mails/social media posts, or waiting for the speaker to be silent so we can jump in, change the subject to speak about what we want to speak about. In short, we are not present, and we are not paying attention.

Listening Choice 2: Focus on Me
In Choice 2, we choose to pay attention to the speaker through the lens of the gremlin, or that inner critic inside our head, which compares the perspective of the speaker with our own and judges the speaker in the context of us. Like Choice 1, Choice 2 gives us no opportunity to be curious, as our thoughts are focused on our needs rather than those of the speaker. Here's what Choice 2 might look like in a conversation with a leader:

Speaker: "I am going to have to work this weekend because I have so much work to do."
Leader Listener thinks: I haven't given her that much work to do. I guess she is really slow at completing her work.

The comment is heard in a way that is judging in the context of the listener.
Choice 2 response sounds like "I don't see how that is possible, I haven't given you that much work."

Listening Choice 3: Focus on You
In Choice 3, as the listener, we pay attention to the speaker, and our "gremlin voice" judges the speaker in the speaker's own context. Choice 3 is frequently the choice of helpers, or people who want to support others by providing advice and helping them to solve problems. They pay attention to what is being said and jump to thinking about a solution, judging the speaker's situation and telling him or her what to do, even if advice is not requested. Using the same examples as used in Choice 2, Choice 3 listening would look like this:

Speaker: "I am going to have to work this weekend because I have so much work to do."
Leader Listener thinks: She doesn't have that much work to do. She should be able to finish it easily within her work hours.

Again, the listener is judging, this time with a focus on the speaker.

Choice 3 response sounds like: "You don't need to do that. You should be able to finish before the weekend."

Listening Choice 4: Focus on Understanding
In Choice 4, we choose to relinquish control over the outcome of the conversation and focus completely on the speaker. We intentionally, actively listen to what is being said and how it is said. We do not judge, and our gremlin voice is quiet. Instead we are receptive and open to the speaker, seeking to understand what the speaker is saying. We have no preconceived ideas about the outcome or what we think the speaker should do. We have the opportunity to be curious, to explore possibilities. Looking at our two examples from above:

Speaker: "I am going to have to work this weekend because I have so much work to do."
Leader Listener thinks: I wonder what has happened? How come she has so much work, what has happened that she can't get it done?

In this choice, the focus is on the speaker and how the listener is curious to support the needs of the speaker.

Choice 4 response sounds like: "How come it is going to take you so long to complete your work?"

Listening Choice 5: Focus on Us
Although completely relinquishing control can create a deep connection, sometimes it does not serve us to stay ambiguous when we have a stake in the outcome of the conversation. In Choice 5, we choose to intentionally, actively listen and remain invested in the outcome of the conversation. We want to understand the perspectives of others and work together to understand the needs of everyone and determine what to do next. Looking at our example:

Speaker: "I am going to have to work this weekend because I have so much work to do."
Leader Listener thinks: How come she can't get her workload done during work hours? I am wondering what she needs to accomplish this?

Choice 5 response sounds like: "I need you to keep your work at work and complete it during work hours. How come you can't complete it before the weekend and what do you need to help keep you on track?"

So the listener is open and curious, focused on the speaker and invested in supporting her colleague.

There is a time and a place for all 5 choices of listening. The key is being intentional in your choice when you enter a conversation. As seen in the examples, how you choose to listen will influence the outcome of a conversation, how you build your relationships, and the engagement of your team. As leaders, we are all busy and it can be challenging to focus on what others are saying, particularly when you are thinking about others things and someone approaches you to have a conversation. Choosing to focus on the speaker as they speak to you messages respect and ensures you have a greater opportunity to listen so that you are open to understanding their perspective. This is how you connect, collaborate, innovate, gain clarity and move forward in ways that create relationships that are effective and respectful. Leaders who choose to be open and non-judging when listening support others so they can learn, develop and thrive.

Remember, even when you don't choose how you want to listen, you are still making a choice.

Kathy Taberner and Kirsten Taberner Siggins are a mother/daughter communication consulting team with a focus on curiosity and founders of the Institute Of Curiosity. Their book The Power Of Curiosity: How To Have Real Conversations That Create Collaboration, Innovation and Understanding (Morgan James 2015) gives parents or leaders (or both) the skills and the method to stay curious and connected in all conversations, even in conflict.

Follow Kirsten Taberner-Siggins and Kathy Taberner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/InstOfCuriosity