So, I kept my second webinar last Friday with the topic about “Active Listening”. And despite the internet connection over 5G cutting off, we did no panic, but restored things over another connection and resumed the webinar :-)

A summary about what I talked about can be found here. 

Active Listening

Active listening is an important skill for all people who work with other people, as this helps avoid misunderstandings and helps develop great ideas further. Coaches need this during the time they observe teams to get a better hypothesis of what could be improved and also in better interacting with and engaging the people. 

The importance of listening was studied by Virginia Satir in 1964 who first identified the following four stages of reception:

  • intake - thus taking in the sounds and signals the other person provides us
  • meaning - understanding the meaning of the information we get
  • significance - processing the information and identifying important parts and getting insights out of it
  • response - responding based own understanding, insights and developed ideas

There are 3 phases for active listening:

  • comprehending - hearing & understanding the words, the sentences and the context
  • retaining - keeping in memory what we hear. Science says the brain can handle only seven things in one time. So with a flush of information we are overwhelmed if we do not develop techniques for it.
  • responding - the way we respond in the communication in both verbal and non-verbal ways.

To my understanding there are five different levels of listening that also indicate the quality of listening.

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  • Level 0, aka fake listening - when someone really does not pay attention to what is being said, but has a subconscious reflex reaction reply. 
  • Level 1, aka internal listening - when the listener reflects what is heard on the own  experiences and then gets stuck there, does not listen more and waits his turn to share his ideas and experiences 
  • Level 2, aka focused listening - When the listener pays full attention to what is being said and trying to learn about the other person. Also in observing VIBE (Voice, Information, Body language, Emotions)
  • Level 3, aka global listening - listening with empathy and curiosity and co-creating the topic of the discussion to a further level
  • Level 4, aka listening for potential - includes the previous level, but also encouraging to other person in reaching his full potential

Keeping the listening on high levels

But how to keep up the quality of listening high? One thing is to be curious and interested in the topic and the person you communicate with. If there is no interest it is hard to stay focused. Something that helps is to pick out the keywords from the things you listen. Those can be ideas, concepts, etc the main things you hear. One option is to ask questions about the keywords and then open those into more detail. Keywords can this way reveal more keywords. You can pay attention to repeated items and patterns that might appear. Combining keywords and the relationship among them can also be an option to better understand and keep track of things. 

Myself, and I guess many other people, are quite visual and get help by visualising things. A picture can tell more than a thousand words. It helps me see drawings or simply things written down. Even though I do not consider myself as skilled  in drawing, those help me put things in relation to each other and in context. In meetings I tend to go to the whiteboard or flipchart and try to visualise what I am hearing. The benefit of this is also that the people will correct me if I hear something wrong. It might even help themselves understand things better and then even the whole idea and concept is evolving through the discussion. I find also just keeping notes even in textual form helps me focus and understand things better - of course listening and writing at the same time is challenging, but I still am more focused when I also write things down than just listening.

One other thing that helps in listening is to be aware of your own state. This mindfulness and self-awareness helps someone consciously understand how good the own listening is. Then someone can self-reflect and realise how good the listening is, what works for him-/herself and what not and what could be improved. 

Empathy & Listening

I also see empathy as an important aspect that can help to improve listening. The three types of empathy (see Brené Brown's articles and https://compassionatecoding.com/) are directly linked to three types of listening.

  • Cognitive empathy is linked to the brain. We listen about concepts and ideas.
  • Emotional empathy is linked to the heart. We listen to emotions and feelings.
  • Compassionate empathy is linked to the social situation. We listen about how things fit into the social context.

Personally I think that there is one type of empathy and also one type of listening missing. The empathy for someone itself (could perhaps call it self empathy, as Lutz suggested in the webinar chat) where one person is listening to him- or herself, the own needs, emotions and practicing self awareness.

Listening in NVC

Also Nonviolent Communication (shortly NVC, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonviolent_Communication) made me think of other aspects of active listening. In NVC there are four steps needed for the communication:

  1. Observe - When I see/hear …,
  2. Feelings - I feel …
  3. Needs - because I need … .
  4. Requests - Please could you now … .

Here I recognise the listening in the various steps

  • in the 1st step: hear what the other person says,
  • in the 2nd step: listening to the own feelings,
  • in the 3rd step: listening to the own needs and
  • overall also listening to the feelings and needs of the other person (even if the person might directly mention those).

Tips

Some tips on how to improve the skills of active listening

  • Most important conscious practice
  • Write down keywords
  • Note your own ideas
  • Ask neutral clarifying questions
  • In your mind repeat what the other person is saying
  • Just don’t talk, use non-verbal signals as sounds, expressions, grunts, body language
  • Reply only with 1-2 syllables
  • Admin you are lost and ask the person to repeat
  • Repeat back
  • Adjust your own postures
  • Mirror the other persons body language and movements
  • Apply mindfulness
  • Check the environment
  • Drawing what you hear

Working remotely

In the current times when everybody is forced to work remotely over the network active listening has a special role. We cannot see the non-verbal communication and the body language, also it is harder to interpret the emotions the other person has. The tone of voice might also not come through very well. The screen size is limited to a small square, we might only be able to see one person at a time. Social situations are more difficult to interpret. And of course we might have on top of this all kinds of sound problems. Active listening becomes more challenging. It requires us to focus more and process more the things we hear, thus a higher degree of using our prefrontal cortex in our brain in order to achieve the same results than in a physical meeting. This will use more energy and make us more tired. It is thus really important to have breaks, drink something, move a bit to get the blood circulating back to our brain and to set good working agreements for working remotely in a team.

Q&As

Q: Will you share the material and the recording of the webinar?

A: Yes, you can find both at the bottom of the page.

 

Q: 4 levels - or not listening is level 0 and does it count as a level?

A: For me in level 0 the situation is so that there is happening a subconscious reflex reaction with an answer indicates that something is listened, even though it is an “autopilot” listening and not conscious.

 

Q: As we are working remotely now due to the situation around the world, we are now communicating virtually.  What is one thing to do around active listening? How to workaround the limitations of non-face to face communication? E.g. no body language...

A: First to be aware that the non-verbal communication is missing. Then have the courage to ask questions or admin that you missed a point. Work together with your team for getting the working agreements updated to the new needs.

 

Q: When should you do notes? only at meetings or seminars?

A: This depends highly on the person. Each person is different. I often visualise and categorise things. I do it in many meetings, seminars, lectures etc. Often I use different tools. For meetings and ideas I have my notebook where I write with  a thin rollerball pen. In conferences I take notes on my iPad using the app notability as I can then combine them with pictures.

 

Q: What is the tool that Pascal is using - very effective!

A: I did the drawings on an iPad using the notability app and a stylus. The iPad screen is shared over zoom airplay to my laptop where zoom runs.

 

Q: Any recommended reading to further know about Listening from a Coach pov

A: Besides the book Hitchhiker's Guide To Coaching (available online here https://www.agile42.com/en/blog/2017/07/11/hitchhikers-guide-agile-coaching/) I would google around for active listening, three types of empathy and NVC.

 

Q: What if you realise that the other person is not listening? Shall we continue or nudge them towards active listening?

A: There can be several reasons for this. I would try to understand why my communication is not engaging. It can be simply a bad day, where the person is just tired or out of energy. Then taking it at another time might be better than going on. It can also be that the own style is not good, so perhaps changing the way you say things take into use different tools of storytelling or eg. Visualisation might help. Also it might be that the other person is simply not interested in the topic when it might be better to accept the fact and end the discussion.

 

Q: what is a good way to practice listening and note taking at the same time. Are there specific tips or good reads about this?

A: For visual note taking I would try to read something about sketchnoting. For normal notes in text form I personally liked keeping notes and focusing on the keywords in bullet lists.


Material 

More reading on active listening can be done from the book the Hitchhiker's Guide To Coaching (available online here https://www.agile42.com/en/blog/2017/07/11/hitchhikers-guide-agile-coaching/).

Webinar recording:  

Webinar presentation: Active Listening 20.03.2020 Webinar presentation