“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”  This quote by Ralph G. Nichols says it all. Great leaders recognize that listening alleviates fears and stress and helps others to accept change more easily.

When I train clients on project management, I stress the importance of listening and responding to stakeholders. Leaders hoping to become effective change agents must constantly work to perfect their communication and listening skills. Though it can be challenging, I try hard to fully understand the needs and messages that are conveyed to me by my clients. Effective listening requires that I make no assumptions, maintain a clear and focused mind, and ask clarifying questions.

How change is communicated to people can have a major impact on how well they embrace and adapt to it. Great leaders understand that the major components of communicating such as the context and message, medium and feedback are important. However, they also recognize the major role that listening plays in helping people to accept change.  They know that active effective listening is a key part of communicating change.

Oprah Winfrey is a leader who changed the media world by leveraging her great listening skills. These skills are displayed in her interviews and her approach to working with people. She believes that each of us wants to be valued for who we are and is adept at listening well to instinctively make others feel that they matter to her. The fact the she is greatly admired shows how people around the world respond to leaders who know how to listen.

In the book, Co-Active Coaching, by Henry Kimsey-HouseKaren Kimsey-HousePhillip Sandahi and Laura Whitworth, three levels of active listening are defined:

  • Level 1: Internal Listening
  • Level 2: Focused Listening
  • Level 3: Global Listening

Level 1: Internal Listening

Level 1 listening is all about the thoughts in the head of the listener. The listener is internally focused and hears the words through the lens of their own experiences, feelings, and judgments. When you’re listening at level 1 you’re always thinking about your response or counter-argument to what others are saying. Stephen R. Covey’s well known quote describes this well, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” When your mind is absorbed with your response, you’re distracted and not listening as well as you should.

Level 2: Focused Listening

The best way to move from level 1 to level 2 listening is to emphatically respond to the speaker to show that you understand what they’re saying and feeling. Keep your mind focused on their words and intonation instead of your own feelings.

Focused listening is a higher listening level where the attention is on the speaker. At level 2, the listener concentrates intently on the speaker and puts them at the heart of the conversation. The listener focuses on understanding the content of the message within the context that it is being delivered.

Level 3: Global Listening

We all should strive to reach listening level 3 or global listening. At this level you’re concentrating on the speaker and also the environment which includes the mood, body language, energy, gestures, etc. At level 3, you’re listening for meaning and content, and for depth and emotion within the context of the situation and your intuition. At this highest level of listening, you’re completely in the moment and actively processing what others are saying.

Building high performing teams require that leaders strive to constantly communicate well and listen at level 3. Effective communications require that team members are involved as early as possible in planning for change. Leaders need to continuously share the information that folks need to understand, accept, and value change. They should explain why changes are necessary, what were the options, and why one was chosen over another.

Once they’ve been informed, team members should have opportunities to express their concerns and fears. If the team is listened to at level 3 and their good ideas are incorporated into the change process, leaders are more likely to impact change. Even if everyone does not get exactly what they want, if they feel they’ve been heard, they’re more likely to accept change.

As an experienced project manager I’ve seen how effective listening helps people to not only accept change, but to embrace it. I’d like to say that I listen at level 3, but know that I struggle to consistently maintain that level. Building great listening skills is a progressive process that I work on every day.