We have conversations all the time. They can be quick and inconsequential or deep and meaningful. That is to say we could be ordering a coffee or discussing the deeper meaning of life with a close friend. The depth of a conversation is not all about the context though. Conversations also become more meaningful when we listen at different levels. Listening to a coffee order certainly doesn’t take much but the heavier the topic the more listening is required. Let’s explore some listening levels and examples of each to better understand the impact listening has on a given conversation.
Listening is not just done with one’s ears, as there’s more than just words happening in the moment. The speaker uses body language, tone, tempo, and facial expressions as well. When emotions are strong, these other signs are very apparent. When things are suppressed by the speaker, these things become difficult to pick up for an unskilled listener. The more important the context of a conversation, the more important it is for the listener to pick up all the other cues aside from the words spoken. There are three levels of listening to be reviewed in this light.
Level I Listening
Level I Listening is all about ‘me.’ What does this mean to me? How does this impact me? Ordering a coffee is all about how you want your coffee. You may be thinking about the cost or how you’ll pay. Maybe you’re thinking about the line. The barista is thinking about what she needs to do to complete your order and take your payment. It’s very one-dimensional. Listening at Level I works fine for quick things like transactional exchanges: ordering food, checking in at an office, or asking for the time. However, this level of listening would be annoying if used on a friend who’s looking for more.
Imagine a friend comes over and is telling you about a problem at work. She’s pouring out all her frustrations but you’re only thinking about whether or not she can still babysit for you later. Have you heard her worries or noticed she’s on the verge of tears? This isn’t just rude but it could ruin the relationship. We wouldn’t want to do this to a friend, so we take on a deeper level of listening.
Level II Listening
Level II Listening pays more attention to the speaker, taking in body position, tone, emotion, what is actually said and what is not said. Sometimes, what is not said speaks more volumes than what is said. It’s like coming to the edge of a cliff and then backing away quickly without looking at the view. You know there’s more but it’s taken away before you get to see it. That edgy feeling may be given off by the tone of the speaker, the emotion, or the body language. Is the person sitting up, leaning in, confident, reserved, and so on? Level II Listening let’s all your focus go to the person speaking. Your own body language will reflect this as well.
Imagine your friend comes over to vent about her workday and you see her going on about people not doing their job and stress she’s under with too much on her plate. She’s tense, as if ready to burst, talking fast and gritting her teeth at times. You mention this and she vents more, finally breathing a big sigh knowing she’s been heard. Perhaps this acknowledgement also helps her realize she needed to relax; she’s in your home now and not at work. The mere mention of your noticing her emotion may help her realize herself, but she’ll also be assured that you’re fully listening to her.
Level III Listening
At Level III, listening goes even deeper. Not only are you honed in on the speaker, but all else in the world goes away completely. The speaker is the world at this moment. Her emotion is electric and you feel it, sensing through audio and visual cues and also intuition. When you’re on this level, your responses become second nature and the speaker’s responses become clues to more insight. The way to which your comment is responded tells more than the verbal response itself.
Back to your friend… You ask if she’s talked to her boss. She dismisses it, changing the subject. What is she not telling you? You could press, but if others are around, she may not want to talk that deeply. If so, you could suggest meeting privately. You could gently offer her a chance to go on. Her body language, facial expression, and tone will indicate if she’s willing. Even if she isn’t, your concern will have its own effect on her; she has someone to go to who will listen. If she is willing, you’ve just gone deeper. Now all the truth is free to come out, an outpouring, a release of all the bottled up emotion. It can be quick or slow, thick with emotion or a sudden spurt which floods and fades at once. This release can be the most healing and refreshing moment a person receives.
The Presence of Coaches
In the coaching world, we strive to listen at Levels II and III continuously. There’s sometimes so much information to take in that it’s hard to remember we’re listening to the coachee, not the problem. Still, we’re here for the coachee and we’re listening to him/her more than the issue. The issue alone would only require a Level I, but the coachee needs us at Level II or III. The better the relationship, the deeper the listening can be. So much can be said with words, but words are outward expressions and often controlled, reserved, hiding more meaning behind them. Coaches listen for more than words; we listen for the deeper you, the you that needs expressing, healing, and finding. You are worth Level III Listening and we’re here for that.