This month I want to talk about another vital tool in the EQ process. After self-awareness (the Johari window) comes social awareness, for which the essential skill is LISTENING.

Whenever we interact with other people, obviously we want to be heard and we get frustrated if we feel we are being misunderstood or not listened to. We can talk all we like but if the audience, of one or many, is not hearing and understanding us, the whole exercise is pretty pointless.

Each one of us needs to take responsibility for how we listen to others. This is important, not only in order to understand what’s being said to us, but also to know how we are perceived to be listening, in order to build positive and trusting relationships. However, there is something we can all do to make sure we are listening as effectively as possible. It starts with asking yourself ‘Where’s my focus?’ – am I focusing on what I believe/what I want to hear/how I want to respond? Or am I focusing on what the other person is really trying to tell me and why they might be saying that?

The Pyramid of Listening, with its five layers, is an ideal way to explain this:

  • Level 1: Ignoring

The lowest level of listening is ignoring. What you are hearing is of no interest to you and you effectively switch off. Your eyes may glaze over as your thoughts wander and it will be clear to the other person that you have totally disengaged. I think we all know how frustrating it feels to be ignored!

  • Level 2: Pretending

When pretending to listen you may find yourself nodding, mumbling the occasional ‘uhu, yep’, but you’re not really taking on board what the other person is saying and are almost certainly distracted by something more important to you, like replying to your emails. 

  • Level 3: Selective Listening

Getting slightly better is level 3, selective listening. Here, you are listening to what’s being said, but only when the message is of direct interest to you, or if the person is saying something you agree with. Everything else is missed or falls into the ‘ignoring’ category.

  • Level 4: Attentive Listening

When attentive listening occurs we are indeed listening to what’s being said, both the aspects we agree with and those which we don’t. However, at this level, we are continuously forming our own opinion about what’s being said and waiting for the moment when we can get our point across – rather than letting the speaker’s full message sink in and understanding the situation from their perspective.

  • Level 5: Empathetic Listening

The highest level is empathetic listening. Now we are truly hearing what the other person is saying and may repeat back key aspects in order to double check we have understood them correctly. If ever you say “so let me just play that back… what I think I heard was…”, the chances are you are listening empathetically and the speaker will feel a real sense of being understood. At this point your focus is on what the other person is really trying to get across, rather than on what you want to hear or what you want to say.

Listening skills, and the levels of the Listening Pyramid come into play in every conversation, especially in the workplace. Even, for example, between CEO and receptionist. Let’s say it’s Monday morning, and on their way into the office, the CEO asks the receptionist “How was your weekend?”. The CEO must then really LISTEN to the response, be interested in whatever the receptionist has been up to and show empathy . . . which leads to a feeling of being ‘heard’ and therefore valued. This is an essential foundation for any relationship as it builds trust.

In another situation, maybe a client is displeased because he feels his needs are not being met. He’s ranting, unable to clearly express what is annoying him. This is the time to double up on the listening skills, gently probing and encouraging him to vocalise the problem, showing you want to understand. This is empathetic listening at its best!

So, the next time you’re having a conversation, in or out of work, ask yourself “where is my focus?” to check whether you’re listening at levels 1-4 or whether you’ve reach level 5. Similarly, if you feel you’re not being listened to, how would you call out the person opposite you and explain how their lack of focus is making you feel?