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The art of Listening at Three Different Levels

Written by: Craig Twombly
Published: June 2011

Have you ever wondered how much different life would be if there was a road map to personal growth and success? Over our lives we gain several skills and knowledge. People who are truly successful have an uncanny ability to not only call on and use the skills they have learned but also have the knowledge of when to use them. A few years back I remember walking my daughter into kindergarten. In the front of the room there was a large black chalkboard with everyone’s name and a welcome message. To the right of the welcome message was an old beaten up poster that said, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” I smile as I think back to that poster and from that I knew that my daughter would be starting the foundations of learning and growing.

business listeningSo what, right? Someone who is successful can pull on what they’ve learned when needed. One of the greatest skills we all have and sometimes use well and sometimes not so well is our ability to listen. There are three levels of listening. We use each level at different times and in different circumstances. You may not be aware that you are using one of the levels, but the chances are you are using a level. The leaders who are most successful with the three levels of listening have the ability to move through the three levels seamlessly without the person they are speaking with noticing. I recently had to go on a fairly long road trip with my wife and her family. Traveling with three extremely introverted individuals left me a lot of time to reflect on the three levels of listening.

Level #1- Listening is internal. The spotlight is on “me”: My judgments, thoughts, feelings, conclusion, etc. Level one listeners are thinking of a related story to tell when the speaker pauses. When discussing this level I, we often describe it as the meeting stage. When you first meet someone or get together for a meeting, you might find yourself in this Level. When you are in level one you are thinking about how you can relate to that person or their story. When I look at my career in the restaurant world, this level was sometimes used by managers who had to visit a table because of a guest complaint. The manager will be waiting for the guest with the complaint to finish so that they could offer an apology or the, “Yes, I know what you are talking about I was recently out to eat and….” The goal was to make the guest happy so they came back again. In this situation the results were mixed. Sometimes the guest would leave happy and sometimes they would feel like they were just appeased. In the first few months with Priority Learning I had the privilege of meeting the CEO of a local manufacturing company. I introduced myself and quickly began to share thoughts around hockey business and everything in between. As I introduced myself he listened and shared his similar experiences. He was engaged in Level #1 listening.

Level #2 – Listening is focused. The attention is laser focused at the other person. The listener asks deep and probing questions and concentrates on the answers. We would expect all professional leaders reach this level frequently and by choice. This level involves careful thought and attention. Inside this level you may not be as apt to share you similar experiences as much as just asking great probing questions. If you think back to the manager who visits a table that is complaining, as the manager enters the table they engage the guest at Level#1. This would be the introduction, “How are you” conversation. When the manager moved into Level#2, the results are remarkably different. The guests would leave feeling appreciated and having a genuine conversation with a manager. I would often have a conversation with a guest; not about the service, but about how great the manager was. Now continue to the conversation with the CEO. During our conversation he went from asking me how old my daughter was to more propping questions about my hope with my new job and where I saw the future to be. Nowhere during this did he offer suggestions or relate to his own experience. Several years later I often come back to this conversation as the model of listening in level #2.

Level #3 – Listening is 360 degrees. At this level you can observe with your senses. What you see, hear, smell, and feel are considered as well as the emotional sensations. The listener is not only hearing the message and asking good questions (level 2), they also observe the speaker and pick up signals. This level is usually laser beam focused. As we all know day to day life can become very busy. Inside the restaurants you would often see managers interacting at level #1 and sometimes level #2 with employees. I often would explain level 3 as the level that a manager went to when a star performer gave a letter of resignation. All of a sudden the manager would stop everything and become laser focused around the employee and the body language they exhibited. Trying hard to put themselves into the employee’s shoes and perhaps trying to save the relationship in level #3.

As you look through all three levels you can probably recall using each level. This is what ties me back to the beginning. Knowing when and how to recall each level can add tremendous success to your professional as well as personal life. As I look at my personal life it is easier in some situations. Every day I drive my daughter to school. This is traditionally a ten minute ride in which we talk about school, sports and everything in between. I sometimes find myself discussing the challenges she faces as a 9 year old by relaying my own experience and listening to her thoughts and questions. I am often listening in level #1 and level #2. One afternoon we started driving and she was very quiet and not up to talking. About 5 minutes into the ride I asked her what was wrong. She began to tell me about an incident on the playground. She had been pushed by a boy on the playground. Instantly I found myself deep into level #3, watching her body language and her feelings and so on. I find myself, often moving through the three Levels because of the relationship and bond. Because of the responsibilities of being a dad I focused my attention to listening and observing her behaviors.

As you sit and think about the three Levels you can probably recall situations where you have appropriately moved through the levels and you might also recall times when you have not. We discussed at the beginning of this article that it takes effort and practice to become good at using the three levels appropriately. We know there is more than one method and thoughtfully using the levels is the challenge. My wife who is an Occupational Therapist, is part of a dynamic health care team that helps everyone from newborns to helping the elderly. She loves what she does and we have had many conversations about the beginning and end of lives she sees and experiences every day. Recently and unfortunately her grandfather became ill. He lived a long and fulfilling life. She sat with me at our kitchen table and discussed with me her fears as what was happening. Some of her concerns were the feeling about seeing him in the vulnerable and sick state he was in. As she spoke about her feelings I reflected back to the feeling I had faced as a loved one became ill. After a few minutes of her conversation, I offered her my suggestions on how to handle the situation as she moved through this difficult process. Over her time as an Occupational Therapist she has seen this many times. My goal was to help her through this and help her begin to look towards the future, both positive and negative. She looked at me with a look of bewilderment and a furrowed brow. I asked her what the look was for and the conversation quickly ended after a “nothing” from her. She got up from the kitchen table and went to another room. I scratched my head and left it at the fact it was a difficult situation for her. The next day as she prepared for work she looked at me and casually stated, “All I wanted you to do was listen” and at that moment I realized that I had broken every rule we have discussed in the previous paragraphs. Just because I am aware of the three levels and the need to look at and explore which one to be in does not mean I am there. I was too busy being in level 1 and trying to fix the problem.

Whether in our personal or professional life our success is directly proportionate to using the skills and knowledge we have learned from the past. It is taking the time to focus and observe that leads to your success or stress.

Thank you for listening and as always I welcome your feedback!

Craig Twombly

Craig Twombly

Craig is the primary facilitator at Priority Learning, he is responsible for conducting an array of leadership series offered and consulting assignments from communications to team development in organizations ranging from the service industries to finance, manufacturing and more. Having extensive experience at balancing the business needs with the wants and desires of people are Craig's strongest assets.