Sep 18, 2017 | People

Picture this. The CEO needs to make a decision about a cost-saving measure, and has turned to your team for advice. In support of the initiative to go paperless, she wants to eliminate either pens or pencils from use by employees across the organization. The program will be considered a success if it is rolled out in 30 days from today, 100% of employees have converted from the legacy writing instrument, and employee morale does not drop.

As ridiculous as this initiative may sound, the scenario sounds all too familiar. Teams are often given limited time, little supporting data, and high expectations to make decisions that will have enterprise-wide impact.

What is also familiar is that teams are working on several other initiatives with compressed due dates. When the topic of pens versus pencils comes up on the team meeting agenda, only one member of the team has a strong position. Let’s call him the Advocate. The Advocate has studied the issue, has prior experience with a successful rollout of a similar initiative, and has drafted a plan to share with the team.

When the issue is brought up at a meeting, the team members are scattered in focus, and don’t practice the listening skills that would take advantage of the Advocate’s expertise and passion. Instead, they fall into four types of listeners: Ignore, Volley, Judge, and Apply.

Ignore. The Ignorer must attend the meeting, but obviously has other issues pressing for his attention. He’s buried in his phone, but throws out occasional comments like “Uh huh” or “Wait. What are we talking about?” from time to time. His guiding statement is, “You’re not important to me right now.”

Volley. This person doesn’t really agree or disagree with the Advocate about this issue, but wants to be a part of the conversation to get his own remarks on record. He’s preparing his comeback while the Advocate is talking, and interrupts in mid-sentence. His guiding statement is, “You think that’s right/wrong, I can top that.”

Judge. She strongly disagrees with the Advocate about this issue. She’s constantly fact-checking, and making assumptions and conclusions before she hears out the Advocate. Her guiding statement is, “Here’s your problem.”

Apply. This person considers the Advocate a subject matter expert and is here to learn, but not ask clarifying questions or offer feedback. She pays close attention as she downloads information from the Advocate and her other teammates. Her guiding statement is, “What can I take away and keep myself safe?”

Scenarios like this play out all too often. The ability for teams to share information, and make decisions gets bogged down by the inability to listen. Instead, we accept unproductive listening behavior. We let Ignoring, Volleying, Judging, and Applying pass for listening. But to truly hear one another productively, we must practice listening with empathy, as follows:

Empathize. Team members don’t initially agree or disagree with the Advocate, but are present to the Advocate’s words and, more importantly, are open to being changed by what is said. They give their full attention to the Advocate’s words and body language. They stay curious, make an emotional connection, and forget their own agenda. Their guiding statement is, “What are you experiencing?”

Listening with empathy takes practice. It requires being fully present to the thoughts and feelings of others, setting aside our ego, and being open to information that may change our paradigm about an issue. As you go through your workday, take note of how many of the five levels of listening take place among your team members, and how your team would benefit by practicing listening with empathy.

Question: Which of the five levels of listening do you hear in your team meetings?

Download our 5 Levels of Listening free resource. Ask yourself which of these 5 levels of Listening are you participating in. If you find yourself regularly falling into the Ignoring, Volleying, Judging, or Applying levels of listening, take some time to remember the prescription for that level, so that you can become a more Empathetic listener.


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