Active listening often gets reduced to a set of tips: make eye contact, ask open-ended questions, and silence your phone. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give. It helps people feel seen, understood, respected, and loved. You don’t need to say anything. Simply sitting quietly and being present is enough.
If you do those three things, you will become a better listener. And this is true, but active listening can be much more fun. A quote attributed to Maya Angelou says, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
The Co-Active Training Institute I attended, teaches Three Levels of Listening to develop strong coaches. It turns out, these skills are effective for everyone. You can employ one, two, or all of these in any relationship or conversation to create a deeper connection with yourself and others.
The three levels are aptly named Levels One, Two, and Three.
Level One of active listening is all about you. “I’m hungry.” “Is this person almost finished?” “They just mentioned travel. I like to travel.” Focusing on yourself and your own needs isn’t listening. It’s, well, focusing on yourself. As beginning coaches, they teach us to avoid Level One listening.
However, when you become a sophisticated listener, Level One can inform your listening. Here is what that sounds like:
• “I’m hungry,” might lead to, “Let’s take a break and come back to this conversation later” because you sense the conversation needs a pause.
• If you’re bored, you’re feeling feelings might reflect the other person’s boredom with their own story. You could ask a new question or say, “What part of this story have you never told?”
• Daydreaming about travel might inspire a new direction, “Where’s the place you always wished you could travel?”
Level Two of active listening focuses on the other person. Level Two is the pure, focused connection between two people that communicates, “I hear you. I see you. I am interested, and I care.” Level Two is where curiosity resides. Level Two sounds like this:
• “Tell me more.”
• “Then what happened?”
• “How did you know what to do?”
Level Three active listening is where things get funky and fun. Level Three is listening to the space and energy beyond the conversation. Have you ever walked into a room and sensed conflict even though the people looked calm? Or have you gone to a party filled with magic, and you can’t understand why? That’s Level Three. Sometimes, Level Three is your intuition, observations, and broader awareness, like seeing a bird out a window or sensing the mood. Sometimes, it inspires you to say something.
Level Three looks like this:
• You slow down to create space when a friend becomes emotional.
• You notice someone inhale and ask if they have something to add.
• You feel when a person unexpectedly reacts to something you said, so you pause and ask, “Did something just come up?”
The Three Levels are easy to practice with a few experiments.
• At a meal, listen from a posture of Levels Two and Three and see what happens. Watch how others respond and how you feel.
• Take a walk and notice Level Three. See what the wider world communicates to you.
• Attend a party and see how your Level One might offer information about others.
Using the Three Levels to enhance active listening offers a greater connection to yourself, others, and a more comprehensive atmosphere. You’ll have richer conversations, deeper relationships, and more fun.
Christina Boyd-Smith, PhD is an accredited professional coach by the International Coach Federation. In addition to being the Corporate Rebel Coach, she works with clients 1:1, and group coaches in her signature program, Clarity U, and is a speaker and author. With her no-nonsense and spirited style, she has helped leaders and teams in business, non-profit, and educational organizations make big decisions and work together effectively. And, she makes a pumpkin muffin that will make you weep with joy.