I confess. I binge on business books, and can consume them like food.

I think most business books are like popcorn — enjoyable when hot and fresh, with some great nuggets of knowledge, but often you’re left wanting more. It’s like expecting a dinner, but settling for a snack.

A few books rise far above the snack level. Books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Michael Watkin’s The First 90 Days, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow are like favorite entrees I would order over and again.

The rarest of great business books hit the “feast” level. Probably my favorite feast of written wisdom is Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The 7 Habits has been my career advisor for many years, and I count it as a favorite because it’s a guide to living life, not just life at work.

Among its greatest wisdom is Habit #5 ­­­“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” eight simple words that speak to the power of empathy and listen. Like any great philosophy, it is easy to remember but requires a lifetime to master.

This habit underscores that communications is a two-way process, one that helps build greater relationships, trust and rapport with others. It also highlights the challenges we face when we communicate (or try to communicate), especially at work.

It’s easy to forget that the communications process is dynamic, and that it constantly changes from moment to moment, conversation to conversation.  Communications is a participatory exchange, so it demands listening, as well as speaking

I have learned from 7 Habits author Covey and others that listening starts before we enter a room or begin a conversation.

Let’s pause for a second to think about that: In many cases, we have already determined — perhaps at a deeply subconscious level — about how we will listen (or not) before we have actually heard what others have to say. Our thoughts may go like this: “I have to really sell these folks on my idea.” “So-and-so never listens to a word I have to say.”

We all listen instinctively and reflexively; we often may not give it much thought. What if part of our preparation for a conversation focused more on how we planned to listen, as well as what we planned to say?

The idea of ‘active listening’ has been researched somewhat extensively. The better analyses, I think, are the ones that identify different levels of listening. These levels start with basic hearing and understanding. The more complex listening levels are critical skills — listening to evaluate or judge — valuable skills that can be problematic if they are overused. An even higher order set of listening levels include empathic listening (the ability to deeply understand a person’s viewpoint), therapeutic listening (like professional counselors and psychologists tend to offer) and relationship listening (think of a great conversation with a friend or loved one where time melts away and the give-and-take of understanding flows naturally, even when viewpoints differ).

Here’s a link to a good web article that explains more: http://changingminds.org/techniques/listening/types_listening.htm

With these various listening levels in mind, think back to some recent conversations or meetings you have had. Which ones went really well? Which ones were less than satisfying? Which listening style did you use in each of those? If we trained ourselves to listen in a more deliberate way, would more conversations or meetings become more productive or satisfying?

Try to objectively identify what level of listening you brought to that conversation. Did you listen to judge or did you listen with empathy to be influenced? Would the conversation have gone better or been more productive if you had approached the conversation with a higher level of listening?

Before your walk into your next meeting or join a conversation with a friend or colleague, consciously think how you plan to listen. Consider whether that conversation is one where you need to evaluate and judge, or an opportunity to listen differently or more actively? By listening these ways, the communication process will be enhanced because we are “hearing” more of what is being said below the surface.

In addition to thinking about the way you enter a conversation, here are some additional tips that contribute to active listening:

  • Consider your body language. Make eye contact, hold a relaxed posture. These signals can put the speaker at ease.
  • Keep your focus on what the speaker is saying; if you are preparing a “mental rebuttal, you aren’t hearing the message fully.”
  • Show you’re listening. Nod, smile or otherwise encourage the speaker to continue.
  • Ask open ended questions. “What happened next? How did that make you feel?”
  • Repeat or paraphrase what you’ve heard. “Let me play back what you told me to see if I heard you correctly.”
  • Ask for clarification. “What do you mean when you say… ?”
  • When you have fully listened, offer your perspective openly and respectfully, even when, and especially when, you have a different viewpoint. Reflect the other person’s concerns in your comments.

I believe that the most powerful communications asset that each of us owns is not our persuasive capability, but our capacity to listen. It’s an excellent habit to develop.

What are your thoughts on active listening? What strategies have worked for you? I would enjoy your feedback.