Learning the art of deep listening

May 14, 2021
Jeff Couillard

The most important communication skill

There is no lack of advice out there, particularly when you dive into the topics of “leadership” and “communication”, suggesting that effective communication lies in our ability to be direct - radical even - with our feedback.

Unfortunately, many of these mindsets and approaches stem from a place of “what’s in it for me?” (WIIFM). Oftentimes, the “brutally honest” approach is more brutal than honest, and the honesty is entirely driven by the needs and goals of the person doing the communicating.

If you want to develop a psychologically safe team, where people debate, provide helpful feedback, and work through tensions together, the key leadership skill to do this has little to do with talking, and everything to do with listening. Great leaders develop skills in two types of listening and therefore excel at creating a shared understanding and communicating with ease and effectiveness.

Empathetic listening

How we show up in each moment, in every relationship - our presence (or lack thereof) - is fundamental to the development of psychological safety.

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who obviously was not present? Perhaps they were checking their phone regularly, looking at everything but you, or jumping into the conversation with their own perspective and stories. What was the impact on you? It’s likely that you found yourself less willing to be vulnerable, not disclosing meaningful information, or generally disconnecting from the moment as well.

Have you ever felt judged by someone after you shared something important? It might have been a facial expression, a subtle eye roll, or a “that’s ridiculous” statement. Whatever the reaction may have been, we’re very sensitive to perceptions of judgment from the people that we’re trying to connect with, and it has a significant impact on our connection with them.

These two elements (presence and non-judgment) are essential ingredients in empathetic listening, and a prerequisite for authentic connection.

Reflective listening

The second critical listening skill is the ability to reflect accurately the underlying meaning of the conversation you’re having. So often, we hear what people are saying to us and interpret it through our own lens - risking a misinterpretation and misalignment.

Reflective listening brings a new level of clarity and connection, ensuring that the needs of the other person are centred in the conversation.

A few tips for reflective listening:

  1. Listen for the other person’s needs. In a recent workshop, after a small breakout session with interviews, a participant stated that another member of the course “needed support”. When questioned, the member stated that yes, they did need support, but they particularly needed “validation and acknowledgement”. Many of us hear the word “support”, and then race off to offer “support” through our own definition and ideas of what that is (or really could be).
  2. Ask better questions. Powerful questions are the kinds of questions that elicit deeper responses with more detail and meaning. For more on this, check out our Partner Kimberley McAdam’s post on “6 Powerful Coaching Questions to Build Better Relationships”.

These two critical listening skills (empathetic and reflective listening) are incredibly powerful tools that enable you to deeply listen to the people in your life, helping the relationship evolve to a place of trust and better connection.

Interested in teaching your team the art of deep listening? We’d love to chat about our Conscious Communication labs and programs.

Questions? Thoughts? Feedback? Whatever it is, we would love to hear from you!