Why listening is like a prism
Every six weeks, I am invited to give an emotional intelligence workshop for one of my favourite clients — the YMCA Youth Employment Bootcamp. Boot, for short, is a four week paid training program for youth ages 15-30 who face barriers to employment, be it mental health issues, high-school non-completion, lack of housing, history of substance, or even recently landed immigrants.
I look forward to my sessions on Emotional Intelligence with these young adults, partly because of how relevant the topic is for workplaces, but also because every opportunity to workshop on Emotional Intelligence deepens my own understanding of the topic.
In most sessions, I facilitate an exercise on listening — deep listening — a skill I learned from Coaches training Institute. It goes like this: Internal listening, or Level 1 listening, is when we hear the words of person we are talking to, but we are primarily aware of own own opinions, stories, judgments, feelings, and needs during the conversation. In our minds we hear our own voice saying things like, “I had something just like that happen to me,” or “I’m so bored listening to this,” or “Did I turn off the stove in the kitchen this morning?”. Level 1 listening is normal, but not that all that informative about the other person.
Level 2 listening, or Focused Listening, is when all of your focus, like a laser beam, is directed at the person you are with. You notice their words, their tone, their body language, what is being said and not said. At this level of listening, you are deeply aware of what is happening to the other person with very little attention being paid to yourself.
The final level of listening, Global Listening (or Level 3 listening) takes all of the attention of Level 2 listening, but also pays attention to the space between you and the other person. At Level 3, you are keenly aware of the subtle shifts in energy between you and the other person, as well as the environment around you. For most, this level of listening requires sustained energy and attention. But as with all investments, the reward is deep understanding and insights into what is going on for the other person, as well as the environment you’re in.
After an experiential based exercised designed to test people’s L1, L2, and L3 listening skills, I always follow up with a debrief. “What’s it like to be in L1? What happens in L2 and L3 that doesn’t happen in L1? And what do you notice about the nature of your conversation when you shift between the three?” are common group learning questions I ask.
In my last session, I asked the group of eager young adults a leading question, “What more do you learn about the other person when you focus your listening on L3?” I expected to receive similar responses as I have with other groups, like “more information,” or “empathy becomes easier,” or “you can do a better job at really understanding the other person.”
But when I asked the question of a quiet, rather introverted young man who had barely spoken during the day, I received a jewel of wisdom that reminded me of why I do this.
He replied, “when you listen at L3, not only are you aware of what is really going on for the other person, but you can become a prism.”
“A prism?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied softly. “L3 listening requires you be fully aware of everything around you also while being fully in the conversation. And when you do that, you can disperse light to the places that really need it. That can be the other person, for sure, but it can also be what’s needed in the room, in a group, in a community, and in the world.”
To listen so attentively, with such precision, and with such awareness of your surroundings that you can sense what is needed and be able to reflect it where it is needed most. Coaches Training Institute calls this Level 4 listening — a skill that takes many leaders a lifetime to master. And one that came so naturally for this young man so eager to find work.