Actively listening

Originally posted Apr 3, 2019 • More resources on effective communication

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Hey, manager!

I’m guessing you already know that when you’re mentoring or coaching or managing someone, it’s important to bring lots of curiosity when you’re talking with them. This often looks like asking a bunch of good open questions, and then actively listening as the other person responds.

But typically, when we’ve asked a solid open question and the other person is responding, we’re processing their response in our brain, and getting ready to say the next thing. Maybe we’re trying to come up with another good, open follow-up question, or we’re trying to come up with some relevant advice or direction to share.

This isn’t really listening. But we do it all the time!

I experienced this a ton when I first learned about what good open questions look like. I spent a lot of energy trying to come up with a series of questions that were truly open—questions that couldn’t be answered in yes or no, questions that would inspire some introspection and really help the other person.

I found myself asking a fine open question, and then not being able to digest their response!

My brain would spin. Sometimes I’d start beating myself up for not being prepared enough with another good question, or for not being able to hear this person’s response. I would get flustered, which obviously is a suboptimal experience for the person I was talking to!

In this newsletter, I’ve included some resources that helped me get better at actively listening, especially in one-on-one settings. I hope that they help you level up your active listening skills, too!


Three Levels of Listening

When I trained to become a coach through the Coach Training Institute, we learned about three levels of listening. I walk through these with my manager training attendees, to help them see the difference and begin to practice.

Level 1: Internal Listening

Often, when we’ve asked a question and another person is responding, we are processing in our brain and getting ready to say the next thing: ask a follow up question, or provide some direction. This isn’t really listening. But we do it all the time!

Level 1 listening is staying in your own head, processing how the information is relevant to you, how it might impact you, or what your own experience tells you about this thing they’re saying.

Level 2: Focused Listening

In Level 2 listening, you’re genuinely focused on what the person is saying. You, to the best of your ability, block out all other thoughts going on in your brain. Level 2 listening is external to you; your own ideas don’t get in the way of hearing this person. You’re focused on the other person’s words and their meaning.

Level 3: Global Listening

In Level 3, you’re still focused on the other person, but you’re also aware of more things, like the person’s body language, tone, boredom, frustration, or their excitement. You’re aware of how they are reacting to you, or how they’re feeling. In group settings, Level 3 is the buzzing in the room when there’s lots of energy and enthusiasm, or quiet focus when the group is listening closely to a speaker, or when you can sense typing and distraction in the group.

If you’re in Level 1 listening all of the time, you’ll appear self-absorbed and inflexible, and you will rarely be able to push the team to achieve new and greater things. Your teammates have a lot to offer—listen to them, actively!

When you’re speaking with a teammate, aim to stay in Levels 2 and 3; you’ll be more effective at gaining a shared understanding, learning new information, supporting this other person, and making them feel seen and heard.

Get comfortable with awkward silence.

The natural outcome of active listening is silence.

You’ve been listening intently, and paying attention to other signals like this person’s body language and tone. So when they’re finished talking, you’re going to need to switch your brain into processing mode—which means awkward silence time until you’re ready to say the next thing!

I’m here to reassure you that silence is usually way more awkward for the person who’s getting ready to talk than everyone else in the room. I promise: even if your brain is telling you that this silence you’ve created is BAD or AWKWARD, it’s actually okay and healthy, and probably important, too!

Silence does a lot of work. Silence gives everyone in the room some more time to process and formulate thoughts. It creates an opening for others to participate (especially folks who aren’t comfortable interrupting or steamrolling others). It can communicate that you’re genuinely interested in hearing what others have to say. Silence and space are powerful tools in your management toolbox, and it’s time to get some practice creating them.

Where to start?

Personally, this has been one of the hardest skills for me to learn.

I pushed myself to get more comfortable with creating space and silence when giving presentations. I’m a fast talker, which means that I’ve needed to force myself to breathe and slow down a bit when I give a talk. Initially, I practiced this by writing reminders like and and into my presenter notes.

But it’d be very strange to have presenter notes in my one-on-one meetings :)

Begin by pushing yourself to wait until the person talking has finished before forming new questions, or your response. If your brain starts winding up while they’re talking, say to yourself—wait! They’re not done yet. Focus on their words, their body language, and how they might be feeling. Take in all of this information as data, and practice waiting til they’re done talking before you process it.

As you practice the skill of creating silence, watch for the effects it has on the people you’re talking to. What additional information do they end up providing? What questions do they start asking? How does their body language change during the silence? How much further do you get in your conversation?

Remember: silence is a powerful tool in your toolbox, and can do a lot of work for you!

Prep some good open questions in advance.

It can be really hard to come up with truly open questions on the spot. The best open questions prompt deep introspection and reflection, and I’ll be honest, it can be stressful to hone this skill in real time. So much pressure!

I recommend coming up with a handy list of open questions you can ask in your one-on-one meetings. Some options to help you start this list:

(Note: this isn’t an ad or sponsorship or anything. I don’t get any kickbacks or anything from Plucky’s card sales! I just love them SO MUCH.)

Woman speaking to camera with video player buttons underneathWant to communicate more effectively?

Check out my new Setting Expectations as a Manager video course to balance being empowering and being directive as a leader, and know when to switch up your approach. Or hire me to train these skills at your organization!

Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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