Lesson 3: What Good Listening Is: The Six Levels of Listening Skills
In the previous lesson, we discussed what the average person thinks good listening is, then summarized some research that indicated that good listeners are far more active and engaged in conversations than that. Let’s go a little deeper into that research now.
Zenger and Folkman conducted an in-depth research study of 3,492 participants designed to help managers become better coaches. As part of this program, the participants’ skills were assessed by others in 360-degree assessments.
After tabulating the results, the researchers identified those participants who were perceived as being the most effective listeners (the top 5%). They then compared this group to the average of all remaining participants and analyzed the characteristics that differed between the groups.
What they found was surprising. They noted that:
- Contrary to popular belief, the best listeners did not remain completely silent while the other person talked. Instead, they would periodically ask questions to clarify or take the discussion deeper.
- The best listeners made the speaker feel supported and conveyed confidence in him. This created a safe environment in which issues and differences could be discussed openly.
- The best listeners had a way of making conversations feel cooperative, even when the two speakers disagreed. They conveyed that they were trying to help, not win an argument.
- The best listeners tended to make suggestions. This runs counter to the common complaint that “so-and-so didn’t listen. He just jumped in and tried to solve the problem.” This suggests that perhaps making suggestions isn’t the problem—it’s how the suggestions are made that matters.
Zenger and Folkman also identified six levels of listening, from the most basic (creating the right environment for the discussion) to the most complex (giving opinions and suggestions without causing the other person to shut down). Not all conversations need to use all six levels, but the more of these levels the listener employs, the better the resulting communication will generally be.
Here’s a quick overview of the levels:
Level 1 — Creating a safe environment in which the conversation can take place
Level 2 — Clearing away distractions and focusing full attention on the speaker
Level 3 — Understanding the speaker’s verbal communication
Level 4 — Understanding the speaker’s nonverbal communication
Level 5 — Understanding and empathizing with the speaker’s feelings
Level 6 — Asking questions and sharing thoughts that help the speaker move forward
We will use these six levels as the framework for the next three modules as we discuss the effective strategies good listeners employ in their conversations.
Look at the six levels of listening identified by Zenger and Folkman, above. Using the worksheet provided, give yourself a score from one to ten on each level based on how often and/or how well you usually employ each of the listening levels in your conversations. Write a sentence following each score, describing why you gave yourself the score you did.
Set an intention to improve in any areas in which you scored lower than you would like. The following modules will provide tips on how to do so.