Did you know there are 5 different levels of listening?

I have spent most of my professional life among lawyers and it has always puzzled me how little we listen. This might be an occupational hazard, but, then again, quite some doctors and people working at hardware stores or banks seem to have the same problem.

Now that I am dedicated to training lawyers and other consultants to become better at what they do, this question looms even bigger. I couldn´t not agree more with Edward J. Burke, a communications consultant and a legal project management coach:

The most important element of communications is not self-expression but listening. […] It’s more important to ask diagnostic questions and to listen until you find out what the client really wants (sometimes, instead of what they say they want). Instead of talking, ask open-ended questions that tend to prompt them to do most of the talking (e.g., “Tell me more about … ” or “What makes this urgent?”). Of Counsel, July 2015 issue, Vol. 34, No. 7).

So that takes care of the open-ended questions part, but how do we become better at listening?

One way is being aware that there are (at least) five different levels of listening. Our ears come in five different sizes, so to speak:

  • Level -1: Listening in order to get a word in edgewise as soon as there is the shortest break (e.g. the other person breathing in). This is in fact not listening at all, so I call this Fake Listening. We find this kind of listening often in disputes and negotiations of either legal or everyday nature. In this mode we try to convince the other side of the beauty of our arguments. Does this ever work?
  • Level 0: Listening in order to get confirmation for what I already know. Since I am not letting any new information in, I call it Pointless Listening. This might be the kind of listening between two guys in a bar or when your caseworker at the tax office has already made a decision and is just going through the motions. Rather pointless.
  • Level +1: Listening in order to find out what the information given means to me (aka the What´s in it for me-mode). Since I am focusing on me, this is Internal Listening. We listen in this way to our bosses or project leaders and they had better keep this listening mode in mind when they speak.
  • Level +2: Listening in order to hear what is being said. I am focusing on what exactly is being said and try do tune out everything else, so this is Focused Listening. This is how we listen attentively to a good friend´s story or when a client is explaining their problem to us. Often, we demonstrate our focus by nodding or humming.
  • Level +3: Listening in order to catch everything: What is being said, what is not being said, and what is behind both: concerns, feelings, levels of energy and commitment etc. This means listening for everything, so this is Global Listening. When I am coaching, this is my most important tool. But this tool is not only for professional coaches. Even as lawyers we should be listening much more on this level, e.g. in order to really understand our clients and the concerns that occupy their minds or understand the counter parties that we are negotiating with.

Are you surprised about the many different levels of listening? How much time of an average workday would you say you spend with listening? How much time on each of the five levels? How much time on each level would you like to spend? How can you get there?

As with most other skills, you will get better at listening by practicing the skill. You can find more about the benefits of listening and how to train that valuable competence in this previous article: The power of listening – really listening

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Marion Ehmann is a lawyer as well as the founder and owner of kiMEru Coaching & Consulting AB. She uses up-to-date research and best practice plus her almost 20 years of experience in the legal profession to support lawyers in their professional development.