Your default listening type could be preventing you from getting critical information. An expert outlines four different ways to listen and shares advice for switching up your style to suit a situation.
Think about the last time you had to listen really well. Perhaps you were in conversation with an employee who was sharing something sensitive with you, or maybe you were meeting someone at a social gathering and were quickly trying to absorb as much information about them as possible.
For me, it was when I started interviewing Dr Benjamin Symon for this story.
Now think about how you listened in that situation. You probably displayed active listening by smiling and nodding to encourage the person to continue and to convey that you understood them.
While this level of listening conveys strong emotional intelligence, its benefits can be undone when we do the really common thing of swirling our witty/thoughtful/intelligent response around in our brain as the other person is talking. We listen to respond rather than to understand, says Symon.
That’s what I was doing in our interview. I had my list of prepared questions and I was listening to his responses to try and find a tie in with the next point I wanted to make. But when he said that good listening is about giving people the space to reveal what matters most to them, I felt my listening style change.
While interviews are more transactional than normal day-to-day conversations, I found when I let myself sit with his responses for a little longer than I usually would, I was able to ask richer questions and he was able to provide more in-depth responses.
“Listening isn’t just passively hearing sound. It’s the act of hearing it, interpreting it and then acting on that either by our verbal or facial signals or body language,” says Symon, who is a simulation consultant at Queensland Children’s Hospital and a pediatric emergency physician at the Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane.
“There’s a generosity of spirit in really genuinely and compassionately giving someone else the time to express what they need to express without intervening.”
“Silence can be such a powerful form of validation and a signal to the other person that you’re genuinely leaving conversational space for them.” – Dr Benjamin Symon
As a critical care clinician, he is faced with high volumes of patients who all have complex biological and social needs.
“Every day myself and my colleagues are faced with the challenge of rapidly making a medical assessment in a time-pressured environment, but also needing to establish a sense of trust and rapport with families who’ve never met us before.
“Communicating effectively and understanding what the other person’s concerns are are really critical skills.”
Symon’s interest in becoming a more effective communicator led him to Boston where he attended a course run by the Center for Medical Simulation. It was here that he met Rebecca D. Minehart, obstetric anesthesiologist, and Laura Rock, pulmonologist and critical care physician, who are both also Assistant Professors at Harvard Medical School.
“Laura and Rebecca’s work transformed my understanding of communication and showed me how much we overvalue expressive communication and undervalue receptive communication. Investing time in learning how to listen effectively can have a massive payoff in your professional and personal life.”
Four different ways to listen
Effective listening occurs when there is an alignment between the goals of the speaker and the listener, says Symon. This means both parties are clear on what they’re hoping to achieve by having the conversation.
When you have a specific goal in mind, you can then focus on how you’re going to listen in that scenario.
In a recent article published in the Harvard Business Review, Minehart, Symon and Rock unpacked the research of Graham D. Bodie, Debra L. Worthington and Christopher C. Gearhart, which looks into four different listening styles.
1. Analytical listening – “This is when you’re approaching a conversation with a very analytical, somewhat dispassionate lens,” says Symon. “You’re trying to listen to a problem or a conflict with an open mind, and working to avoid any initial prejudices or taking a particular side.”
Example: An employee claims they’re being bullied by their co-worker and you need to facilitate a conversation between them. Rather than go into that with a predetermined conclusion about who is right or wrong, you’d listen to the whole story, consider all perspectives and come to conclusions based on the facts.
“It’s quite a slow, methodical and time-consuming process to listen in that way. It takes a lot of work, but it can lead you to unexpected conclusions.”
2. Task-focused listening – “This style prioritises efficiency and directness. We’re listening with a very clear and focused goal,” he says.
“It can be very effective in the right setting, such as in an emergency. If someone calls the fire department, for example, that team is going to want rapid and vital bits of information. They’re not really focused on how people are feeling right now. They want to know where the fire is, is anyone in danger, what’s the address, and how long is it going to take us to get there?”
In an office environment, task-focused listening might look something like this:
Your team is on the edge of an important deadline and something goes wrong. An employee becomes overwhelmed and starts panicking about missing the deadline; their emotions take over and they’re not communicating their needs clearly.
In this instance, a task-oriented listener might start asking direct questions – such as: “Have you tried this? Did you skip this important step? How much longer do we have until this is due?” – in order to deliver clear directions to get the team back on track.
It can be a less effective style in situations where people need to feel heard, Symon adds, as it often leads to listeners “exerting their authority to the point where they sabotage the speaker’s needs”.
3. Relational listening – “This is when the listener is trying to understand the emotions behind the speaker and trying to form a meaningful connection.”
“These are the conversations where you can walk away from a coffee with someone and have a better sense of where their emotional state is at, even if they haven’t explicitly named their feelings.”
This would be a familiar listening type for HR professionals, as much of HR’s work is about navigating sensitive and often difficult conversations.
Example: You’re called into a performance management meeting with an employee who is usually a top performer. The quality of their work has slipped and their manager noted that they’ve been less talkative and willing to participate in work social events.
While exploring their performance you notice the employee’s voice becomes shaky when they mention ‘things at home’, and wonder if there’s some unacknowledged stress there.
This is a scenario where task-oriented or analytical listening could cause you to miss out on critical signs, such as challenges in the employee’s personal life or mental health challenges.
4. Critical listening – “This is when the listener is assessing both the content of the conversation but also the reliability of the speaker themselves. That might sound judgmental, but it’s a really critical skill to have.
“Let’s lean on a stereotype for simplicity. Say you went to a shady car dealership and you used relational instead of critical listening. You could be vulnerable to being taken advantage of.”
Example: After approving a remote working arrangement for an employee, their output and email response times have diminished.
You’ve been asked to facilitate a disciplinary meeting with their manager, and the employee tells you they’ve been trying to deliver their work on time but they’re often held up by other members of their team who aren’t providing them with the information they need. As you listen, you keep an ear out for inconsistencies in their story or poor eye contact as they explain their reasoning.
Switch your listening type up
Each of the four listening types are neither good nor bad, says Symon. You just need to learn when to apply them.
“What’s really powerful is developing the ability to switch between those styles where necessary so you can more effectively meet people’s needs.
“Say a colleague comes to me and they’re expressing distress because they’re having conflict in their home life. By the sound of things, I need to switch to a relational listening style, where I’m paying attention to their emotions and helping them process that.
“But if I instead start giving feedback on how they might be contributing to those problems, try to analyse what’s actually wrong with their relationship, or steer them towards getting to the point because I don’t see where this is going, I’m applying either critical, analytical or task-focused listening to the conversation when the speaker needs human and emotional connection.”
When we rely on our default way of listening, whatever that is, we often miss important information. Symon suggests learning more about your style before trying to switch to another.
“There’s a generosity of spirit in really genuinely and compassionately giving someone else the time to express what they need to express without intervening.” – Dr Benjamin Symon
He also suggests taking the time to assess what listening style may be required before you enter a conversation. Are you trying to uncover information? Are you trying to support the person to open up? Do you need to make a quick decision?
“You might develop a ritual [before going into an important conversation] where you ask yourself, ‘What’s the goal of this conversation from my perspective? And what could the other person’s goal be?'”
Sometimes it won’t be until mid-way through a conversation that you’ll notice a need arises, which indicates that you might need to switch styles.
“If I’m noticing a conversation is going in circles, the speaker seems frustrated or dissatisfied, you’re not getting meaningful eye contact or they’re showing avoidant or disengaged body language, I might check myself and think what’s going on? How am I mismatching here? What is this person really needing at that moment and how might I be sabotaging that?”
He also suggests being explicit with people.
“Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Before we go any further, can I just ask what you’re hoping to get out of this conversation? Do you need me to just listen or are you looking for advice or feedback?’
“We can free ourselves from being a psychic if we embrace an above-the-table approach to communication. For example, if I’m dealing with a patient’s parents who seem a bit dissatisfied with my advice, rather than trying to sound more reassuring, I’ll stop and say, ‘This is totally fine, but you look a bit dissatisfied. I get the sense you’re unhappy with what I’m saying. What haven’t I addressed that’s still concerning you?'”
You’re removing an element of discomfort by opening the door and inviting them to tell you what they need.
“It’s often in those hidden areas of communication that can have the most impact once we master them.”
Learning to listen well
Never underestimate the power of validating someone’s perspective, says Symon.
“[However], it’s incredibly invalidating when you express distress or seek feedback and instead receive inauthentic validation.”
For example, if an employee tells you they think they’re bad at their job and you say something to the effect of: “Don’t be silly. Of course you’re not. You’re great,” you could inadvertently dismiss or minimise their feelings.
“We have a tendency in Western culture to fall into that rescuer trap of offering up praise rather than helping them critique their performance.
“My co-author Laura Rock wrote this great article called ‘Don’t answer feelings with facts’ . In it, she uses the acronym GIVE: get that it’s an emotion, identify the issue, validate and acknowledge those concerns, then explore that issue in depth. We often feel the need to contain or dismiss negative emotions due to our own discomfort. Rather than immediately jumping into reassurance, give that person the generosity to listen to their concern and hear them out.”
Symon recalls a time where someone did this for him and says it was “one of the most life-changing conversations of his career”.
“I didn’t think I was performing well and my supervisor said: ‘I agree, let’s talk about why and how we can fix it.’ It was such a relief to have my performance gaps acknowledged rather than feeling repeatedly dismissed with superficial reassurance. It helped me be a better doctor.”
Finally, remember there can be power in taking a moment to pause before delivering your response to someone.
“Silence can be such a powerful form of validation and a signal to the other person that you’re genuinely leaving conversational space for them,” he says. “If silence is uncomfortable for you, try paraphrasing and saying, ‘This is what I’m hearing you say. Is that right? And can we explore that more?’ Rather than just repeating back what someone said.
“It’s fascinating how differently we can interpret the spoken and unspoken things that occur in a conversation between two people. The more we can work to keep those things symbiotic, the more effective we can be in our communication.”
Want to get better at having difficult conversations at work? AHRI’s short course is designed to equip you with the right skills.
Sign up for the next session on 24 August 2022.