You’re Not Listening

Posted Thursday, May 15, 2014

Active listening is a key skill for leaders. In a previous post on Two Steps to Active Listening, I defined active listening as “the art of listening with intensity to truly hear what the other person says, knows and feels.” Leaders who actively listen are more effective, more persuasive and more engaging than leaders who don’t actively listen. It is good to know what active listening is. It is also good to know what active listening is not. Let’s look at other ways to listen.

Carol Wilson¹ lays out five levels of listening:

1. Interrupting Woman covering with hands her ears, isolated

2. Sharing 

3. Advising 

4. Attentive Listening

5. Active Listening

The first three levels don’t contain the word “listening” for good reason: When you’re interrupting, sharing or advising, you’re not listening.

Levels 4 and 5 are truly listening, and we will talk about them in a later post. Today, let’s look at levels 1, 2 and 3.

1. Interrupting

“That really didn’t go well. I am worried about . . .”

“Did you see the game last night? The officiating was awful.”

When you interrupt, you build yourself up at the other person’s expense. In effect, you are saying “Be quiet because what I have to say is more important.”

How often do you interrupt others? Maybe you are rushed, anxious or annoyed. Maybe the other person has raised a topic you want to avoid. Whatever the reason, you drain energy by stepping on their airtime. A little patience, a bit of deference and a dose of etiquette will make you a better listener and a better leader.

2. Sharing

“My boss always takes credit for my work. It’s just not fair.”

“Yeah, he did the same thing to me. I made this killer presentation, but he  just put his name on it and presented to the vice-president.”

With sharing, when someone shares their experience, then you share a similar experience. You may think you are reinforcing their experience, but you are really minimizing their unique situation. When the other person is speaking, you are focused on preparing your response. In other words, you are silent but not listening too hard.

When you appear to be listening, are you just waiting your turn? Do you value your experiences more than the experiences of the other person? Serve the other person by focusing on their story – your story can wait.

3. Advising

“I get really nervous when I present to the Design Group. Sometimes I shake like a leaf.”

“Try practicing in front of a mirror.”

As an accomplished professional, you have experience, expertise and insight. When someone presents you with a problem, it is easy to shift into problem solving mode.

As a problem solver, listening is critical to help you diagnose the situation so you can provide the best solution. However, it is tempting to listen only enough to figure out the problem. If your default  listening mode is advising, then listening can come across as a necessary evil rather than a worthy pursuit.

Problem solving is a good thing. The problem with problem solving is we use it too much and we use it too soon. We present solutions when the other person needs dialogue. We jump to solutions instead of deep-diving issues, understanding values and exploring causality.

If someone presents you with a problem, do you quickly offer a solution? Do you listen just enough to be confident in your solution? Listen more – it will lead to better solutions. Listen longer – the other person may solve their own problem. Listen better – it will show you care.

You’re Not Listening

Interrupting, sharing and advising have two common roots. The first root may be your self-confidence. You value your own experiences, insights and problem solving capability. However, your self-confidence may bulldoze the other person’s need to be heard.

The second root may be your lack of confidence in the other person. Their conversation may show immaturity. Their wisdom seems lacking. They, after all, have come to you. If you lack confidence in them, it logically follows that you will talk more so they will talk less.

Whether you suffer from too much self-confidence or too little confidence in the other person, the end result will be too little listening on your part and too much interrupting, sharing or problem solving.

Listening Starts With Humility

The best listeners are humble. They value the other person highly. They have patience because they know the other person has important things to say. The best listeners serve by having more questions than answers. And, they would rather help the other person solve their own problems.

Notice how you listen. Notice when you shift to interrupting, sharing or problem solving. If your interruption, your story or your solution does not serve the other person, then I will give you Bob Newhart’s classic advice: stop it.

Instead, take the two steps to active listening: be quiet and value the other person. You may find the resulting dialogue leads to better insight, better solutions and a better relationship.


¹Carol Wilson, “Tools of the Trade” Training Journal, July, 2010, pp. 65-66.

2 comments on “You’re Not Listening

  1. Pingback: Energy for Active Listening

  2. Pingback: Images of Listening

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