The different dimensions of listening

People frequently talk about levels of listening as if listening is a set of logical steps that you can access one after the other. Sometimes listening is compared to driving from first to fifth gear then back down again, occasionally back tracking and moving into reverse! Although these ways of describing listening can be helpful, they can also limit your thinking about it. Listening is much more complicated and involved than a mere linear process. At the Listening Partnership, we call these complexities the different dimensions of listening.

The fine art of listening has a broad scope, usually including the coach’s intention, presence, focus, curiosity and observations. It is a self-awareness thing, bringing into play a complex mix of small decisions to help you listen generously throughout every coaching session. What to listen for and when to intervene are also vital aspects of listening well.

What are ‘listening dimensions’ and why are they so useful?

Firstly, different listening dimensions create a helpful temperature gauge, a means by which you, the coach, can quickly check where you are as regards listening. They are also a means of categorising the degree of your listening focus, openness and intensity, describing the quality of listening offered to others. In this respect, listening dimensions are highly relevant in the coaching world. After all, every great coach needs exceptional listening skills.

For you as a coach, they are a frame of reference, helping you catch yourself when you start to get distracted. A way of naming what’s happening that prompts you to move yourself to a different place. However, they are actually useful in every workplace, since techniques that help people improve their listening capabilities apply to everyone who wants to manage or lead others effectively. Listening dimensions are also handy for a team that wants to become more collaborative and innovative.

Furthermore, these listening dimensions can be either a self-check or a group check. For teams, when the conversation heats up or goes around and around, it can be useful to ask<“What is happening with our listening right now?” Once you all recognise that the depth of your listening has been distracted or become superficial, you can decide to go deeper and wider.

Below are the details of the five dimensions:

The First Dimension – Token listening

The First Dimension is not really listening. At best it is ‘token’ listening. You are not paying any real attention. You are distracted by a sidebar conversation elsewhere, or thinking about something entirely unrelated. Perhaps you are listening to your internal dialogue, even lost in a daydream. In all these cases, you are not listening to the other person. Your interest lies elsewhere.

The Second Dimension – Listening to make a point

In the Second Dimension you are listening to the subject being discussed, but for a reason of your own. You are listening to an opening in the conversation to ask a question, make a statement or offer an opinion. In reality, you are only listening to interrupt or interject. Usually, there’s a busy factor involved, a sense of urgency. Sometimes the conversation is getting heated, and you want to make certain you get your say. If both parties are in this mode, the tone of the conversation soon escalates, and nobody hears anybody else.

The Third Dimension – Half listening

In the Third Dimension, you are half-listening. You might well be hearing what someone is saying, and you think you understand, but your thoughts and feelings are getting in the way. You do not have the internal listening space within yourself to pick up subtle clues, things like the real message the other person is trying to get across, their concerns about what has just happened, or what they are asking you to do for them.

The Fourth Dimension – Active listening

Dimension Four, active listening moves you over the line into better-focused and more expansive listening. You are far more attentive, actually emotionally there for the other person. You have good eye contact and are noting what they are saying. Finally, you are not interrupting, and you are appropriately participating in the conversation. Your tone, pace and voice level tends to match the other person like a mirror. You are very present, actively involved in their inner world.

The Fifth Dimension – Generous listening

Generous listening, Dimension Five, is expansive and multi-layered. It includes all the facets of level four listening and more. It is infused with curiosity. Moreover, has a non-judgmental quality. This kind of listening spans the content being discussed, including wider issues and systemic elements, searching widely for patterns, themes and metaphors. It has a real sense of the overall narrative of a session and tracks the energy levels as stories unfold. It holds stillness and silence beautifully.

Listening in the fifth dimension hears what is being said and frequently picks up on what is not being said. It means listening in a way that retains the details while remaining open. It creates the context in which your client feels safe to think and feel more keenly, knowing for sure they are being heard. As you can imagine, it feels great to be genuinely heard, to be the focus of someone’s full attention.

The fifth dimension also includes listening to yourself, drawing upon your self-awareness and intuition while keeping it in the background and not letting it distract attention from the conversation until the exact right moment for sharing… or not.

Executive coaches need to listen above the water line

The different dimensions of listening

As an executive coach all your best listening happens above the water line, spanning dimensions four to five. Dimension five is the most useful quality of listening during coaching conversations but at times we all dip, even if it is only momentary. The art is to notice your dip and get back on track.

It is beneficial to ask yourself, as you coach, what the scope and depth of the listening you are demonstrating at any one point is. If you discover your mind has wandered or you have been itching to make a point, it reminds you to extend your listening repertoire. This means relaxing, loosening up and opening your focus, listening with more ease to whatever the client is saying and actively seeing what they are doing. Get it right, and you will have a lot more capacity. Capacity to access a new dimension and deepen the quality of your listening in real time. The listening dimensions framework supports you in achieving high-level listening whenever you need to.

Are you are interested in exploring the topic further?

Finally, Listening Partnership recommend reading ‘Co-Active Coaching’ by Laura Whitworth, Karen Kimsey-House, Henry Kim’s-House and Phillip Sandahl. They write about various levels of listening: Level 1 – Internal listening, Level 2- Focused Listening and Level 3 – Global Listening. They describe each level in a detailed and practical way which includes a mini dialogue example for each level.

If you are an executive coach and you would like to develop and hone your fifth dimension listening skills, contact us. Together we will improve the quality of your listening. Therefore, the quality and impact of your coaching.

You might like to also read our blog on sensory listening.