Just like the world is 70 percent ocean, high impact communication is 70 percent listening. The same way you can dive to a range of levels in the ocean, you can explore many levels of meaning when listening. The deeper you dive, the more you understand the total ecology of your situation.
Highly effective listeners switch between three levels of listening – and you can too.
1. Surface level listening
When you listen at the surface level, you focus only on the factual content of what the speaker is saying. Doing this is like sitting in a boat gazing at the horizon or the surface of the water. You pay no attention to the depths beneath the surface. This is a useful way to behave when you:
- Don’t need to develop a deep relationship with the speaker
- Simply need factual information. For example, the answer to a question such as ‘Do we need to add anything to the stationery order?’
- Are dealing with a straight-forward situation
However, surface level listening has many drawbacks. It can cause miscommunication if you need to gather complex data. It cuts you off from the emotional content of others’ messages. And it can create the impression that you are too detached or ‘cold.’ In particular, it is unhelpful to listen only for facts when you are dealing with heightened emotions, difficult behaviours, sensitive situations or workplace conflicts and disagreements. In these scenarios – especially when dealing with difficult people and their challenging behaviours – you need to deepen your listening.
2. Dive level listening
Imagine a swimmer diving over the side of a boat. Inhaling deeply, the swimmer plunges beneath the water’s surface and looks around. Suddenly their world view changes. They become aware of sea creatures which were invisible from the boat. They engage with the ocean in a new way, learning more the longer they stay submerged.
Dive level listening expands your perception in the same way. It is a form of active listening. You become aware of the speaker’s feelings and values. You notice nuances of voice-tone, gesture and facial expression. As you do so, you engage with the emotional content of the speaker’s message. You understand the ‘sub-text’ of what they are saying.
Active listening at this level helps you connect with and understand other people more deeply. It helps when you’re communicating with difficult people or managing conflict. You’ll find dive level listening particularly useful when you need to:
- Show respect for someone else’s opinion or feelings
- Uncover ‘hidden agendas’ in order to resolve conflict
- Help difficult people deal with strong emotions or calm down
- Build rapport with someone who sees things very differently to you
Because dive level listening is more intimate than surface level listening, there are some situations in which you should dive in with caution. If someone is experiencing a highly unresourceful feeling, don’t dive into their emotions too deep or for too long. Acknowledge their feelings and then quickly move the conversation towards solution finding or option generation. Remember that workplace conversations should focus on professional issues, rather than deeply personal content. This will ensure you respect the other person’s boundaries – and your own.
3. Submarine level listening
Imagine a scientist on a submarine, exploring the deepest layers of the sea. That scientist’s job is to detect, map and interpret the patterns maintaining the ocean’s ecology. When you’re actively listening at the submarine level, you’re just like that scientist. You’re observing emotional ebbs and flows in order to detect patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour. As you’re doing this, you’re remaining detached and objective – so you can fully make sense of the data you’re gathering.
Actively listening at the submarine level involves detecting core values, beliefs and unconscious drivers. It’s useful when you need to understand what’s driving the behaviours of difficult people. It’s also essential when you’re attempting to overcome resistance to your message or persuade someone to shift out if fight, flight or spite states. You will find it useful to shift unto submarine level listening when you’re:
- Attempting to resolve deep-seated conflicts
- Dealing with others’ strong emotions – such as rage, fear, shame, grief or defensiveness
- Coaching staff or colleagues in order to build emotional intelligence skills
- Handling people with chronic behavioural problems
- Trying to influence without seeming pushy
However, you should always keep in mind that submarine level active listening involves entering the ‘personal’ zone of communication. In everyday communication at work, you will rarely need to enter this zone. So don’t go this deep too often. Instead, focus on moving back into dive level listening mode.
How to master the three levels of listening
The easiest way to enhance your active listening skills is to deliberately focus on using them every day. Start by trying out your surface level listening skills for one week. During that time, spend ten minutes a day tracking the FACTS someone is describing during a conversation. The next week, listen at the dive level for ten minutes a day. During this week, mentally summarise the FEELINGS behind what you hear people say.
Finally, hone your submarine level listening by focusing on it for seven days. During your ten minute practice sessions this week, to answer the question ‘what does this person believe or value about this topic?’