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The Let’s Rethink This Series: Part 2 – Active Listening (Why it is often of little value)

If you’ve ever taken a corporate training course on active listening, you probably learned that it means paying attention to the person talking and consciously not interrupting them or formulating your response. Often, the emphasis of these courses is on:

  • Eliminating distractions like phone notifications 
  • Showing you’re listening by making eye contact, nodding your head, and using facial expressions to show you’re following along. 
  • Providing feedback like “what I hear you saying is….”

If you’re someone who has a hard time listening, perhaps these more mainstream approaches would be an improvement. They’d provide some benefit.

Yet, when we look closer, it’s easy to see that these strategies are largely superficial. That’s why it’s time to REThink this watered-down approach which generally misses the point and the opportunity present in all connections.

Imagine standing on a pier looking down at someone in the water who is on the verge of drowning. As they flail away, you practice your active listening training by maintaining eye contact. Then, as they yell for help, you respond by saying, “What I hear you saying is that you’d like help.” And when they, in turn, scream at you to do something, you reply, “It sounds like you’d like my help.” 

This exchange mirrors the dynamic of many well-intended conversations.

Of course, eye contact is a good start. Double-checking your understanding of someone’s sharing by reflecting what you heard is also good—but stopping there? Not so good.

The point of this article is that if we are to listen well, we need to be listening for something quite specific.

Listening for the Reason – Level 1

There is a reason this post exists. There is a reason you are reading this post. There’s a reason this post is part 2 in a 3 part series. And If you find yourself in conversation with someone, each of you has your own reason for being in that conversation. 

If we are to listen well, we need to be listening for the reason.

If you’ve read previous posts here, you know that I believe we are all in life for a reason. Thus, the best listening we can do is to tune our ears, eyes, and hearts to the other person’s reason for being in life. This might seem like a tall order initially. So let’s dial it back a bit and think about listening on two levels.

When someone chooses to engage with you, they do it for a reason. Thus, when we listen to their sharing, we should be listening for the reason they are in THIS particular moment. Let’s call this Level 1 listening.

Active listening skills increase the chances that the person you listen to will feel seen. However, listening to why someone is in the moment essentially guarantees they will feel seen. How could they not feel seen as you seek to honor their reason for being in the moment?

Purposeful listening is a hunt to understand someone’s reason better.

Here are some sample inquiries that can set the tone in a conversation:

  • What is the thing you’d like to have happen due to our being together right now?
  • What is your goal for this conversation?
  • What would be a great outcome from our discussion for you?

A funny thing about being human is that although there is a reason for everything we do, that reason is often outside of our awareness. After reading this article, if you choose to practice engaging folks and seeking to listen for their reason for being in the moment, you will repeatedly hear a response similar to this: “Hmmm. That’s a good question. I don’t know off the top of my head.”

You might be saying, why should I be so focused on someone else’s reason if they aren’t even doing it? Well, life is about serving others. Thus, listening is a powerful way to serve because we can help someone better connect to why they are in a particular moment. 

If you want to grow as a listener, don’t settle until you have reasonable clarity on the other person’s reason for being in the moment. If you’re going to grow as a human being, seek to do something to serve that person’s stated reason for being in the moment. 

Higher forms of listening are centered on understanding the reason someone is engaging with you in a particular moment.

Listening for the Reason – Level 2

Becoming excellent at what we call Level 1 listening will unquestionably grow your impact and deepen your relationships. 

Yet if we take the premise that each of us is in life for a reason, then the pinnacle of our listening is not just listening for someone’s reason in a particular moment. It is about listening for the reason they are in life! We’ll call this Level 2 listening.

Naturally, building the skill of listening for the reason someone is in life takes time and effort. Questions that help reveal someone’s deeper reason include:

  • What are moments in life where you have felt most alive?
  • What would those that know you well say you are ALWAYS doing?
  • What have been your favorite work experiences?
  • What problems do you love helping others solve?

Leadership and Listening for the Reason

If you are a leader and are responsible for the development of others, listening is essential.

Imagine trying to develop someone in ways counter to 1) The reason they chose to join the organization or 2) The reason they are in life. Then, conversely, imagine the level of engagement when a leader helps develop someone in alignment with their reason.

Leaders need to be able to motivate, and motivation is a function of someone’s reason. We have energy and excitement for people and things that take us closer to our reason. Conversely, we have resistance and resentment for that which takes us away from our reason. 

Good leaders practice Level 1 listening. 

Great leaders strive for Level 2 listening. 

Good leaders honor the reason someone chooses to join the team. 

Great leaders strive to honor the reason someone is in life.

Listening Starts with Self

Ironically (though not really), the strongest way to learn to listen more deeply to others is to listen more deeply to ourselves. 

When we begin to regularly track our own reason for being in any moment, it gets much easier to appreciate and listen for someone else’s. Similarly, as we begin to follow and sense the reality of our own reason for being in life, we begin to see it in others. 

Download our “What’s Your Reason Guide” to deepen your sense of your reason.

Listening for someone’s reason isn’t about perfection. It’s about consistently putting in the effort to more deeply understand what’s going on under the surface. Training yourself to listen to other people’s deeper reasons helps you forge stronger relationships in every area of your life – family, friends, colleagues, or neighbors. 

In all of these interactions, listen for: 

  • Why is what they’re sharing vital to them?
  • What do they need right now?
  • In what ways (however small) can I help this person feel more connected to their reason? 

And the great news is you can start right now!

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