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levels of listening

Active listening vs. Real listening

Active listening vs. Real listening

With a culture so focused on leadership and public-speaking, much of our Western education model makes sure to offer plenty of opportunity to develop our capacities in these areas. However, very little if any attention is given to counterpart roles of followers and listeners. As a result, we are living in a society where our understanding of good followership is nearly non-existent, and our capacity for listening is mostly summarized under the skill-set of “active” listening while missing the much more profound capacity of “deep” listening.

The most alarming side-effect of active listening is the power of listener to manipulate what a speaker actually talks about.

Active listening often involves a type of participatory, affirming set of techniques that has the listener employing behavior like regular eye-contact to show connection, head-nodding to demonstrate understanding, the use of “uh-huh, mmm, yes” to encourage and support, and the use of lots of supportive questions and paraphrasing to make sure the speaker feels heard. While this approach to listening is great in many circumstances and is a sure-fire way to make a speaker feel heard, there are also unrecognized side-effects. 

The most alarming one resides in the power of listener to manipulate what a speaker actually talks about. Through our use of affirmations, paraphrasing and body gestures, we send strong signals about whether we approve and agree or not, and this can often lead a speaker to continue their course of thought or shift and change to another one, accordingly. Active listening also suggests that a listener must somehow demonstrate their level of participation and engagement, and this often leads to a “thinking about what I’m going to say/ask next” monologue. We often try to jump in with opinions or stories to show how we can relate. The problem here is that while we are busying ourselves with all the effort required of actively listening, we aren’t fully paying attention to the speaker and tends to keep conversation at a relatively generic level. It also often leaves listeners feeling tired at the end of the conversation, suggesting that active listening also requires extra effort and energy. Active listening can be attributed to Level 1 or Level 2 listening, sometimes called downloading or factual, and remains on the level of polite conversation or debate, often producing results by the end of the conversation that could have already predicted by everyone at the onset.

As such, active vs. deep listening is a matter of paying attention to our attention, and practicing and experimenting with the various levels of listening whenever possible so that we can fine-tune or sense of how to best use all 4 levels.

Deep listening on the other hand requires a whole other set of techniques and presence, and allows for Level 3 and 4 listening, when empathic or generative dialogue are sought after. In this case, the goal of the listener is to give full and undivided attention to the speaker in a way that holds space for the speaker’s greatest possible wisdom to emerge and remains curious about essence and source from which the speaker shares. The invitation here is to restrain from any verbal or physical affirmations and simply support the speaker in following their own deep sharing thought-process. In deep dialogue, we often encourage speakers to imagine they are speaking from their gut, rather than their head, and to only share the truth that comes out from there. Many people often notice that the volume of a conversation often decreases when people start speaking more from their bodies than their heads. Additionally, listeners pay attention to their own inner monologue and notice voices that can distract them from deep listening, such as voices of judgement, cynicism, or fear. When the listener notices the voices he/she simply lets them go and returns to giving full attention to the speaker. Lastly, the listener focuses on staying fully mindful and embodied in their own presence, and only asks questions that feel truly in service of the speaker and the generative dialogue. Often the results of these types of interactions are a new understanding and emergence of wisdom on whatever topic is being explored. Results are often different than what participants had expected and energy is notably higher. People note a sense of speaking from the whole rather than from their own individual perspective or needs.

Ultimately, it is the quality of our attention that dictates the outcomes we see and experience . As such, active vs. deep listening is a matter of paying attention to our attention, and practicing and experimenting with the various levels of listening whenever possible so that we can fine-tune or sense of how to best use all 4 levels.

MOVE workshops always use education and practice about deep listening as a foundation for our work with clients. For more information about deep listening you can also check out this fantastic brief article by Alan Seale