Continuing our series on tips for effective communication …

Twelve Tips for Communication Tip Four: Listen Comprehensively – the Many Levels of Listening

Listening involves more than just hearing. In this post, our focus is on understanding comprehensive listening: listening in the broadest and most powerful sense.  This concept expanding listening from one of simply hearing another, to one of receiving information from another in the broadest and more informing and enabling sense. In an earlier blog post on “Deep Listening” colleague, David Markwardt talked about listening in the context of a leadership skill and suggested that if readers approached listening with the idea of listening for issues that are important to the speaker and not jumping too quickly into solving the speaker’s problem for them.” David’s focus on developing the “listening muscles” will certainly apply to the larger sense of listening that this article focuses on – understanding listening as an activity that is far broader than solely a function one’s ears.

In an earlier post, I mentioned Dr. Steven Covey and reviewed some of the “habits of highly effective people” in the context of effective communication.  Specifically, I mentioned the notion of seeking first to understand the other. If we can effectively and deeply understand the other, we will be far more effective in meeting our own needs by avoiding the potential barriers created when we inadvertently fail to understand how our needs can be dovetailed with another’s.

Let’s look at some of the components of “comprehensive Listening.” Among the key components of comprehensive listening we will discuss here are listening for the speaker’s:

  • Verbal content and expressed needs;
  • Emotional content;
  • Non verbal content;
  • Style, and conscious and subconscious metaphor use; and
  • Barriers to trust and rapport and opportunities to bridge them through congruence.

Let’s now look at a brief overview of these skills …

Perhaps the most seemingly obvious listening component is listening to the verbal content of the speaker’s communication. What is she telling me?  While listening for the message conveyed in the words seems obvious, in fact, it can be the most challenging aspect of communication.  Take, for example, the huge difference in meaning between “Yeah right!” when spoken with a smile and excitement versus the same phase spoken with sarcasm and rolled eyes – two completely opposite meanings. While this is perhaps an over-simplified example, challenges to listening to the verbal content of the speaker come in much more subtle forms. For example, in today’s modern e-mail-driven environment, we are left with only the unembellished words. We are left to fill the basic tenor and underlying intention of them on our own.  It is established that we interpret raw information congruent with our own state of mind.  Thus, we can read the same words and impute completely different intentions on the part of the speaker depending on our own mood. Since studies consistently show that, as a part of the total potentialcommunication, the purely verbal, or word-based part of our communications with others typically comprise only around seven percent of our total communication, when weighted together with the paralinqual – that is the expression we place on our words – and the non-verbal components of communication. E-mail has its place in documenting communications, and conveying simple contents.  However, you may want to ask yourself before your next important and complex communication, “is e-mail the way that I want to communicate?

When we listen for emotional content of communication what we observe may be obvious. It could be as obvious as the earlier example of the person saying, “yeah right!” when their rolled eyes and sarcastic expression indicate precisely the opposite meaning. Likewise, a shouted “No!” may be pretty clear in terms of meaning in most contexts. But, often more subtle incongruencies may be imbedded in the communication.  Body language that suggests discomfort, even when the speaker is saying “yes” is a good example. Be alert to the non-verbal signs of emotion that are not in line with the verbal or written message.  It may be changes in the pace of the speaker’s delivery,  or changes in voice tone, a shaky voice, or some signs, obvious or subtle, of discomfort in the speaker.  A long pause before a response may indicate that the person is sifting through emotions to find words. Not jumping in to fill the silence will afford the person time to feel their way through to a response.

Being alert to non-verbal communication and watching the speaker’s body language will provide invaluable information for deeply understanding them and ultimately connecting with them. Is the person facing you and making comfortable eye contact? Is their speech quickened while their shoulders are raised and tight? In another posting, we will discuss additional specific body language issues and tools to use body language to help build rapport. For now, what we are focusing on is “listening” for these signals so that we can learn from the non-verbal message we are “hearing.”

Listening to the way the speaker laces words together and her metaphor choice will provide powerful insights into opportunities to bridge different approaches to communication and to eliminate distracting differences in the approach to conversation.  For example, if the person repeatedly likens the issue they are talking about to a “battle between …” and consistently uses martial metaphors, such as “winning the battle but losing the war…” and other similar metaphor choices, that word choice can inform the listener about the emotional position of the person, and what metaphors you may want to choose to connect with them.  How the person “frames” their concerns and perspectives yields an incredible amount of information and can help you plan your own communication.

Listen for clues in word choice for visual, auditory, or kinesthetic preferences. Individual communication style actually runs deep into the speaker’s subconscious. Whether the person shows a preference for visual word choices, such as “I can see the day when;” auditory choice, like “That idea really clicks for me;” or kinesthetic (feelings and emotions) such as “I just don’t feel right about …” provides amazingly valuable information for you when the time comes to connect with the person when you speak. Don’t forget about the subconscious decision making styles just discussed in our last post.

Finally, stay alert to any signs that become apparent in your listening process that reveal any underlying trust or rapport issues. These may be as simple as obvious differences, such as gender, race, ethnicity, language, or other issues.  Or, they may be far subtler, such as subtle incongruence in communication pace, style, metaphor, and other features.

I hope you will see as the discussion progresses, that all of the tools and approaches we discuss in this series will tie together to provide a comprehensive series of tools to help you sharpen your ability to be a likeable, trusted, effective listener and a persuasive speaker.

BJM  11/11/11

About Bruce MacAllister

Bruce MacAllister is the founder and Executive Director of Business Excellence Solutions. He holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Chemistry and Biology and a Juris Doctorate degree. He has over thirty years of experience working with people in conflict, and training and coaching people through conflict situations. He works nationally and internationally with a wide variety of clients, including national departments, research and development organizations, institutions of higher education, non-profits, and individual businesspeople. He has been an ombudsman, executive level manager, project and program manager, trainer, and attorney. Click the "About Us" page to see his full biography. (
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