In times of great uncertainty, the need to listen well becomes even more important. Listening is at the heart of effective communication.  Done well, listening can build and nurture relationships, transform individuals and create breakthroughs.  We all listen and yet most people have little or no training in how to do it well.  This blog explores the listening process and how to improve listening at a deeper level.

When we listen, to what are we paying attention?

Many writers talk of the different levels of listening and four key ones can be summarised as follows:

  1. Cosmetic listening – your mind is off elsewhere, and you are acting ‘as if’ you are. With increasing use of mobile phones and other technology, we can often be distracted when we are with others. We can even end up not really listening at all.
  2. Conversational listening – you are engaged in the conversation and there is a rhythm to it. This can take the form of listening, talking, thinking, listening, talking etc.
  3. Active listening – you are very interested in what the other person is saying and focus on the words. You are demonstrating the ‘signs’ of effective listening. E.g. recording facts, staying attuned, paraphrasing and reflecting back.  There is ‘evidence’ of you having listened from the way you can use ‘listening techniques’ in order to recall and summarise what has been said by the other person.
  4. Deep listening – you are listening to the other person in a much more empathic way. You hear both the content of the words and you are also aware of how they might feel and how they make you feel.  You may notice more non-verbal signals like tone of voice, use of hands and the emotions associated with the words.  At this level, you can ‘step into another’s shoes’. You experience ‘their reality’ and show that understanding in how you respond.

When we are busy, it is hard to think that we have time really to listen and we often feel pressure-prompted to move at speed. We therefore interrupt and give advice far too quickly.  Often in organisations, kudos is given to the person talking. This is rather than the credit given to those who listen well and use their insights empathically.

However, as even political leaders recognise, there are times when listening at a much deeper level is extremely beneficial. One reason being that it helps to create trust and confidence.

So, how do you get started?

If you want to become a better listener then start with yourself. How do you listen to what is going on at a deeper level within you?  There is a parallel process at work here. If you notice what is going on for you, then you are much more likely to notice what happens in another person’s emotional world.

When we tune into ourselves, we start to understand some of the beliefs and patterns of thinking which impact on how we see others. This also helps with  uncovering our unconscious biases.  Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), is built on the premise that we all distort our thinking.   One of the founding fathers of CBT – Albert Ellis – identified that most people are inclined to think in ways that are irrational and self-defeating.  These beliefs like ‘I must be loved and approved of by everyone’ or ‘it’s easier to avoid problem than to confront or deal with them’ leads to feelings like procrastination, unassertive behaviour, passive aggression and poor self-esteem.

It may be that we do not consciously consider these beliefs. However, these unconscious dynamics still play out in our interactions with others and can get in the way of how we listen.  If, for instance, you are someone who does not like conflict, then how do you allow another to disagree with you and to hear their reasoning?  How do you learn what frustrates the other person? Without expression, these feelings do not go away but can build and come out in much more damaging ways in the future.

Starting to understand yourself, and all the contradictions that make you unique, is essential pre-work to listening at a deeper level.  It is only once we listen to ourselves at a deeper level, that we can listen deeply to others.

Some ideas for how to listen at a deeper level:
  1. Deepen your own self-awareness so that you start to recognise your own beliefs and patterns of behaviour that impacts on others. We are shaped by the echoes of our past and it is important to stop and understand what continue to reverberate within you.  Notice your reactions to people and events, particularly those that are unhelpful and operate on an auto-pilot. Challenge these unhelpful reactions.
  2. In a world which is increasingly full of ‘noise’ and distraction, be aware of that and cultivate time and space for yourself. Space where you can achieve some ‘cognitive quiet’, so that you can hear yourself think. It is good to spend time in the natural world so as  to connect to your own human nature.  When you have space to reflect, then insights can emerge.
  3. Work with someone you trust, or perhaps a professional coach/counsellor to surface some of the patterns in your thinking that may be holding you back e.g. like ‘the need to be right’ or ‘not feeling good enough’. Both of these may be a sign of insecurity.
  4. Give space to people accessing their own ideas first in order to understand where they are ‘coming from’. A lot of the time, people are not comfortable with silence. However, it gives the speaker thinking time to work through an issue or idea.  Get comfortable with silence and practice using it and experiencing it from someone else.
  5. Spot the non-verbal cues from the person with whom you are working and consider what they might mean. Also, consider your tone of voice and language used.  Pay attention to metaphors, as they are often used to convey lots of information in a simple way.
  6. Finally, a small but important point is to understand how you look when you are listening. Check it out in a mirror if you are unsure, to help you to understand the other person’s perspective. Does your expression show interest and respect?   If not, then consider what needs to change.  Ensure appropriate eye contact to show interest and connection.

Of course, not all your interactions require listening at a deeper-level. However, it is worth developing these skills to ensure that you have such an ability when it is important.  In some roles like consulting, coaching, facilitation, mediation and counselling, they are critical skills.  These ideas create a much more conscious awareness of how you are in the world and indirectly help you to understand how others are also.


Article authored by Margaret Walsh

Listening deeply to ourselves and others is at the heart of a one-day Workshop that Margaret Walsh has developed with her colleague Katharine Peel, a Mindfulness Teacher and Coach.  At this ‘Spring Echoes’ Workshop, questions like ‘How can we best tune into ourselves?’ and ‘What is our own inner voice saying to us?’  The Workshop takes place in both the rooms and gardens of Newnham College, Cambridge on 10 April 2019.  Please click here to find out more information.

Margaret Walsh is a registered member of the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy, a Member of the Association of Coaching and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development.  She works with individuals and groups using a mixture of coaching and psychotherapy to help deepen self-awareness from which to bring about change.  She works face-to-face as well as by Skype and telephone and can be contacted on  Margaret also maintains a regular blog which can be found here