As employees of a communication company, everyone on our team feels extra pressure to be a strong communicator. How well we actually listen to what clients tell us determines whether they think we can help them transform.
The truth is, we haven’t been consistently good at this. When two of my senior employees came to me a few years ago and said, “Nancy, we have a listening problem here at Duarte,” I wasn’t shocked. We’d had several projects that we’d estimated poorly and scoped wrong. Our communication experts were finding that when they met with clients to begin work on a project, its scope and goals were often different from what they’d been told they would be — a situation that was both frustrating and expensive.
Get Updates on Transformative Leadership
Evidence-based resources that can help you lead your team more effectively, delivered to your inbox monthly.
Please enter a valid email address
Thank you for signing up
I’ve written about the importance of tailoring your message when you want someone to embrace your recommendation, and about how to make sure your team understands what kinds of decisions you want to be involved in. But what about strategies for being a better listener? Intrinsically as a leader, I knew that listening is essential. I’d observed the struggle in myself and most of the leaders I know, and it was clear that we could be doing better.
All of us are guilty of having a listening gap at least some of the time. Think of this as the difference between the speaker’s interaction goal — what they’re looking to get from the conversation — and how the listener actually responds. Each of us has a default listening style, but it doesn’t always align with what the person speaking to us wants or needs in that moment.
More times than I should confess, my executives — and, frankly, my children — had left a conversation with me feeling like they hadn’t been heard. When our human resources team surveyed my executive leaders, I learned that they didn’t feel celebrated as much as they needed to be because I was so excited to jump in and move them forward. On a more personal front, my son avoided meaningful conversations because I always wanted to accelerate his cause, even at times when that wasn’t what he wanted from me.
To be clear, I thought I was listening pretty well. The effects of my listening behaviors evaded me until I went through the course built by two Duarte communication strategists, Nicole Lowenbraun and Maegan Stephens. With their training and coaching, I began to understand that good listening is more than giving the person speaking your full attention or putting away your cellphone (although doing both is still essential). Tips like “avoid judgment” don’t account for times when our colleagues, clients, and vendors actually want us to pressure-test what they’re saying. Even the much-hyped practice of active listening falls short.
What I learned is this: There isn’t one right way to listen all the time.
Instead, great listeners adapt the way they listen to help the person speaking accomplish their goals and meet their needs. Each of us might be entrenched in one kind of listening style, but the good news is that once we recognize this pattern, we can adjust our approach so that we choose the most effective form of listening for a particular situation.
Four Listening Styles for Four Types of Situations
Lowenbraun and Stephens maintain that while you might think there are infinite responses to the question, “What does the person speaking want from me?” there are only four in the workplace — to Immerse, to Discern, to Advance, or to Support. (See “The Four Styles of Adaptive Listening.”)
Here’s what those concepts mean and how to choose when to use each.
Speakers sometimes need a listener to Immerse. There are many workplace situations in which the speaker needs the listener to absorb the material they’re delivering without comment or judgment — to simply become immersed in what’s being conveyed. When the speaker’s message is meant to inform, an immersive listener makes sure they understand it all. If someone says, “I’m here to give you an update today,” or, “This is important for you to know,” that’s your cue to be an immersive listener. You can take notes, mentally catalog the information you’re hearing, or ask clarifying questions to confirm what you’ve heard. The speaker’s main goal is for you to be a content sponge.
Speakers sometimes need a listener to Discern. Needing guidance at certain points in our work lives is common. When the people we work with aren’t sure what’s going well and what’s not, they are often looking for someone to help them consider the strengths and weaknesses of their situation or project. If the speaker says something like, “I need some feedback on this,” or, “I’m not sure if this makes sense,” that’s your signal to be a discerning listener. You can help the speaker identify red flags and pinpoint positives. You can respond in a way that helps the speaker get unstuck or consider alternative approaches.
Speakers sometimes need a listener to Advance. When the people we work with are focused on outcomes or pressed for time, they often need an Advance listener to help move projects and processes forward. If they say, “We need to make a decision on this,” or, “I don’t know how I’m going to get this project done,” that’s a cue for you to be an Advance listener. You can offer a decision, take on some of the work yourself, or assist in delegating tasks to help the speaker get to the finish line. Again, you want to do this only if you know it fits the goal of the person speaking to you.
Speakers sometimes need a listener to Support. Everyone experiences challenges at work as well as victories. Both situations are opportunities to create human connection. Being a successful Support listener means you acknowledge and mirror the speaker’s feelings. If they say, “I’m having a horrible day,” or, “I have the best news,” that’s your cue to be a Support listener. You can respond with words and actions that validate the speaker’s feelings. You are the confidant or the cheerleader, depending on the context and situation.
Move Forward With Empathy
I don’t have mastery yet of always knowing the right way to listen. But in understanding these options, I’m getting there. I know that my default style of Advance listening is needed at least some of the time, but I’ve also started catching myself when a different style would be better. For my executives, I’m using Support listening more. It’s improving our relationships one-on-one and as a team. For my son, I adapt to become an Immerse listener. It’s working well enough that last Christmas, he gave me the gift of an hour-long conversation every Sunday morning. As I learn to listen in these new ways, it’s opening doors to richer and more meaningful interactions.
The entire Duarte team has been through this training, with meaningful outcomes. For example, our internal teams have reported greater efficiency in their interactions, while sales teams have built greater trust and influence with clients. As one of our sales leaders put it, “Helping others feel heard in the way they need is a game changer.” After applying the Adaptive Listening framework, this leader now describes sales conversations as more empathetic and says that customer-centered listening has created “real partnerships and collaborations.” That’s a far cry from the poor estimates and misquotes that were happening with our projects before we introduced Adaptive Listening.
We often have clients and workshop attendees ask us, “Why can’t I just ask people what type of listening they want?” The truth is, that’s a perfect approach for some situations. But we’ve found that the most influential communicators are able to figure out what the person speaking wants with just a bit of effort — and they’re able to do it without placing extra burden on the person speaking.
If you want to get better at listening and build your influence in the process, ask yourself, “What does the person speaking want from me?” In most cases, they need more than eye contact and a nod of your head, especially in the workplace. You become more valuable by adapting how they need you to listen. This leads to better outcomes. To learn what your own default listening style is, take the Adaptive Listening Assessment that we’ve developed.
Every workday is dynamic, and all our teams and colleagues need different things in different moments. It’s not always easy for leaders to know what people’s goals are while they’re speaking. But if we’re willing to adapt and move out of our default styles, we’ll be on our way to becoming more compassionate and effective listeners.