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Explore Your Listening Philosophy!

I’ve written a lot in recent weeks about communication; what it is and why it can go so badly wrong. I would like to continue that theme in this blog and explore an area of communication that I have to say, to be honest, is counter-intuitive. That area is listening and our listening philosophy.

Listening Philosophy

Listening Philosophy

When my Eagle Training corporate trainers are covering this topic we usually ask people to rate themselves out of 10 as listeners. I don’t know how you would score yourself but most folks score themselves above seven, indicating they are good or better.

I’m sorry to say this, but I think most folks are overestimating their ability as listeners. I think that most people really don’t listen. It might be that they are just not that interested in what you’re saying. Alternatively, it might be that they are too focused on their own agenda. Whichever it is, it’s a great shame to see two people acting like they can’t really hear each other — by choice.

And yet, we all really need to be good to great at it. This is because communication, and listening in particular, is one of the most important skills in life and one that is absolutely crucial if you want to be great at management or leadership.

So, do you want to be a better leader, manager, coach, salesperson, parent, partner or friend? If you do, then become a better listener. Please note that I am suggesting this as someone who was a lousy listener for too many of my earlier years and paid the price!

In his best-selling book, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People‘, which is one of my favourite books and the one which set my on my own path of self-improvement, Dr Stephen Covey talked about the need to “seek first to understand and then be understood”; it’s the fifth of the seven habits in case you are wondering and is what I refer to as your ‘listening philosophy’.

Types of Communication

In the book Covey explains that there are four basic types of communication:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Speaking
  • Listening

He argues that in comparison the many hours spent learning how to do the first three, the last type of communication has been neglected. “Comparatively few people have had any real training in listening at all.” Hearing is one thing. True listening is another thing altogether.

Levels of Listening

Covey proposes that there are five levels at which people listen; assuming they have no listening impairment. The first four levels are:

  • Ignoring – This is when we do not really listen at all
  • Pretending – This is when we make all the right noises, “Yes. Hmm. Right” and give the impression that we are listening
  • Selective listening – This is when we tune in to selective parts of the conversation and tune out of others that do not interest us
  • Attentive listening – This is when we pay conscious attention to the words that are being said by the other person; a difficult task and one that we can’t do for very long!

Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

So, what does Covey mean when he suggests seeking first to understand and then be understood?

I’m going to be a bit contentious here, but I believe that very few people ever practice listening on the fifth level, empathic listening; the highest form of listening. This level of listening involves getting inside another person’s map of the world, with the positive intent of truly understanding them. In other words, trying to see the world the way other people see it and to understand how they feel, which can be very difficult to do.

However, Covey argues that seeking to first understand involves a very deep paradigm shift because most folks typically seek first to be understood; i.e. get their two penn’orths in first. So, they have a tendency to listen with the intent of replying rather than to understand, and are generally either speaking or preparing to speak; wanting the other person to understand our view, our map of the world.

It’s as Covey says in the book:

“If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. You listen to yourself (your silent internal dialogue) as you prepare in your mind what you are going to say, the questions you are going to ask, etc. You filter everything you hear through your life experiences, your frame of reference. You check what you hear against your autobiography and see how it measures up. And consequently, you decide prematurely what the other person means before he/she finishes communicating.”

I have been in corporate training workshops where some people have claimed that this listening philosophy is in some ways soft. “Get in first” appears to be their philosophy. My mentor, Alan Bailey, once asked me how much my tongue weighed. I didn’t really understand his question but told him it didn’t weigh very much.

“Well Ian”, said Bailey, “if it doesn’t weigh very much, why do you have such a problem holding it?” He then went on to explain to me that I would never learn very much while my lips were moving. As usual, Bailey was right!

I said at the start of this blog that it would be counter-intuitive. Most people don’t get the idea of letting the other person talk first. And another thing, what if you seek to understand but others don’t?

Well, one person truly listening is generally better than none. More importantly, one person listening can sometimes lead to two people listening without it becoming an “After you”, “No, after you” situation.

Let me conclude this listening philosophy blog by saying that it is not my intention to imply that it is not important to be understood. Being understood is obviously equally important; especially if you want to reach collaborative outcomes. In the book, Covey defines “maturity” as the balance between having both courage and consideration.

Seeking to understand requires consideration. Seeking to be understood needs courage. Achieving a collaborative, win-win agreement requires a high degree of both.

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