Are You Listening?

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Mark Goulston and John Ullmen

We’ve compared listening to conversations with the act of listening to music, and the comparison runs even deeper. If you want to make great music, or to appreciate an opera or symphony with a trained ear, you need to develop your skills. And the same is true for connective listening. It doesn’t just happen; you need to make it happen. Moreover, the more you practice, the better you’ll become—and the better you become, the more remarkable your outcomes will be.

It may sound strange to practice listening. After all, you already listen to other people all day, every day. But here’s the thing: There are different ways to listen, and not all of them work. Disconnected influencers gravitate toward the least effective forms of listening, with the result that, as Mark Twain once said, “Most conversations are monologues in the presence of witnesses.” These types of conversations don’t just make great outcomes difficult; they often bring them to a complete halt.

To practice the kind of connective listening that increases influence rather than destroying it, you need to train yourself to listen at a higher level. And to do that, you need to understand what happens at each level of listening.

Here are the four levels of listening, from worst to best.

Level One: Avoidance Listening = Listening Over
This is more the avoidance of listening than listening. Listeners who listen over others are the people who say, “Uh huh,” while clearly showing no interest in what the other person is saying. They look preoccupied, and they usually are. Sometimes they don’t even stop checking their email or texting on their phones while they’re “listening.” The person who’s talking usually feels ignored, blown off, or at the very least just not listened to. Level-one listening can annoy, exasperate, or even infuriate the person who’s talking.

Level Two: Defensive Listening = Listening At
This is listening with your defenses up. It’s being quick to react and slow to consider. Listeners who listen at others take issue with everything they’re saying. Rather than taking things seriously, they take everything personally. Such listeners are often seen as high maintenance, and over time, people avoid them because they’re exhausting. Level-two listening frustrates and upsets the people who are talking.

Level Three: Problem-Solving Listening = Listening To
This is listening in order to accomplish things. It’s problem-solving listening. It’s a no­nonsense, purposeful exchange of information. Problem solving listeners listen for the facts in order to move forward.

In the correct circumstances, this is the right approach. But people will feel frustrated if they’re hoping for something more than a solution to a problem. Level-three listening can cause anxious people to calm down a little, but often it still leaves them feeling unsatisfied, unrelieved, and misunderstood.

When you’re trying to get things done with people, a common mistake is to use problem-solving listening because it seems efficient. It focuses on the task at hand and drives toward results-oriented suggestions and recommendations. The problem is that it’s a false efficiency. People aren’t machines, waiting for information to be programmed into them so they can go about their tasks mechanistically. Level-three listening, especially when matters are complex or emotionally charged, leaves too much room for misunderstanding.

Level Four: Connective Listening = Listening Into
This is listening of the highest order, and it’s the human listening that all of us crave. Connective listeners strive to understand in the fullest sense. It’s important for them to feel where people are coming from so they can establish genuine rapport.

When you’re in connective listening, you’re not acting as if listening is a burden and trying to avoid doing it (level 1); or listening with a mind set to defend yourself against inaccuracies or perceived attacks (level 2); or listening in order to jump in with your solutions and quick fixes (level 3). Instead, you’re listening with the intention to understand the other person and forge a stronger connection.

Connective listening is listening to other people to discover what’s going on inside them. It’s listening from their there, instead of your here. It’s listening without an agenda, because you’re not focused on responding or even on helping. That’s because you can help more effectively later, when the time is right, if you don’t prejudge what another person needs (which might be very different than you think).

Connective listening involves listening fully—with your ears, eyes, heart, and body. In addition, it involves creating space to listen and being fully present. Here’s how to do it:

The Art of Level-Four Listening

1. Whenever possible, pick a time and place where the other person will feel comfortable being open with you.
2. Pause often, using silence to leave room for the person to think more and say more.
3. Eliminate distractions and give 100% of your attention to the person you’re listening to. Listen as if nothing more important is going on in the world than connecting with this person. Let the other person’s words resonate within you.
4. Mindfully resist the urge to retreat into your here by offering solutions, defending yourself, or explaining yourself. Instead, remember that you are listening to learn.

Ask questions like these:

  • What does that mean for you?
  • How do you feel about?.?.?.??
  • What do you think about?.?.?.??
  • What else comes to mind?
  • What else are you thinking/feeling?
  • What’s your take on?.?.?.??
  • What’s your perspective on?.?.?.??
  • What was your first reaction when you heard?
  • What’s the best thing about that?
  • What would be the best way to build on that?
  • How can you keep the momentum continuing?

As you begin using level-four listening, understand that it isn’t always easy. In fact, you’re likely to find that it is by far the most challenging step of the connected influence model, and that it takes time and practice to get good at it.

Whether you’re listening to your coworkers, your clients, your friends, or your family members, begin by assuming that they have something of value to tell you. Set aside your ego and your agenda, and resist the urge to defend, argue, or explain. And then simply listen for things you don’t know.

Because here’s a secret. No matter how much you think you know about other people—even your partner, your child, or someone who’s worked one desk over from you for twenty years—those people will surprise you if you make space for them to tell you what they really know and feel. And the information you find out can point the way to deeper understanding, creative solutions, and huge wins for everyone.

© 2013 Mark Goulston and John Ullmen. Excerpted and adapted from Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In, by Mark Goulston and John Ullmen. Used by permission of the publisher, AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

You can improve your listening skills with these AMA Seminars:
Dynamic Listening Skills for Successful Communication

Develop Effective Business Conversation Skills

About the Author(s)

Mark Goulston and John Ullmen. Mark Goulston, M.D., is a business psychiatrist, consultant, chairman and cofounder of Heartfelt Leadership, and the author of the bestselling Just Listen and Get Out of Your Own Way. John Ullmen, Ph.D., oversees, conducts popular feedback-based seminars on influence in organizations, and teaches at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. They are coauthors of Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In.