Clever or Tender? Four Types of Active Listening

May 01, 2020 1 Min Read
active listening

Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth? – Chris Tucker

We hear, but do we listen with purpose?

The quote above was from Chris Tucker’s character in the movie Rush Hour (by the way, highly recommended if you haven’t seen it yet). It’s also very apt for what I would like to discuss today: Active Listening.

The speaker is often given a lot of attention and focus when it comes to the act of communicating. But as we all know, the listener has an important part to play as well. Although active listening is well discussed and understood, I want to share some different perspectives on this.

In this article, I’d like to discuss the role of the listener. Traditionally, in effective listening, we are taught several things: paying attention, presenting positive body language, being open, not interrupting, giving feedback through questions or paraphrasing, looking at nonverbal cues, etc. These are all valuable, and I believe at some point or other we are taught this in our careers.

However, I believe the key to effective listening is not in the accumulation of these skills. They are of course necessary. But the power lies in understanding the role you are playing as a listener, which I can summarise into four broad areas. As listeners, we seek to fulfil one of these four purposes:

  • To solve
  • To soothe
  • To set
  • To solicit

The role you play has a lot to do with the role that the other party expects you to play as well. Therefore, this has to be aligned. Each of these roles requires a different approach. The key techniques of effective listening apply to all, but how you use them, and to what degree, will differ.

In summary, you are going to use a combination of tenderness and cleverness. The key is to know how much of each to use.

Let’s look at each situation separately:

To solve

We may find ourselves in a situation where people come to us to seek resolution to a problem. Especially if you are an expert of some sort, or in a position of authority, this may be the most common situation you find yourself in.

active listener

Here the speaker is expecting you to solve their problems. What is then expected of you is one of two things: mentoring or coaching. Each has their own techniques, but both rely mainly on cleverness as opposed to tenderness.

As a coach, your active listening will need to be on identifying the hurdles that are stopping this person, then getting them to discover it themselves. You do this with a lot of open-ended questioning techniques. You are in a process of discovery, so don’t let your own thoughts or conclusions cloud your mind.

As a mentor, you are trying to listen to find a parallel in your bank of knowledge and wisdom that can relate to the situation being conveyed to you. Therefore you are not relying on open-ended questions so much as taking turns to speak. They share something – you then digest it and share an example from your own life that can relate and present a solution to theirs. Or you tell them exactly what to do.

The key differences in technique here are:

  • As a coach, interject the narrative with short open-ended questions. Your job is not to share as a listener, but probe.
  • As a mentor, take turns speaking and listening. Share openly.

In both instances, you need to focus on your ‘cleverness’.

To soothe

We may also find ourselves in a situation where people come to us to seek solace. They would like to share some misfortune, or injustice, or unhappiness. This is a very different situation for you as a listener. Here, the techniques require you to use more tenderness than cleverness.

active listener

This person is sharing with you not with the intention of you solving their problems; instead it’s for you to empathise with them. As a listener your job is to be fully attentive, both in mind and body language. You are not expected to speak much in this situation, but as for good active listening, you must continue to engage the speaker with words of encouragement and acknowledgement.

The purpose is to make sure that the listener is able to share everything with you. If you are a good listener, that act alone will ease the burden resting on their shoulders. All you have to do is express that you care with your listening skills.

To set

…your job here is to validate what you’ve heard and ensure clarity and accuracy.

This may be the easiest of situations you find yourself in. Despite that, most get this wrong as well. This is a situation where someone is expecting you as a listener to record everything that’s being said. I find this situation most often in a meeting situation where there are multiple parties and one person is expected to take down minutes or notes.

Active listening comes into play here as well. This is probably the easiest situation for you to get lost in, especially with multiple conversations going on and possibly not involving you most of the time.

The key skills here revolve around focus – you must keep your mind on the task. You must also practice paraphrasing as a listener to ensure that the points captured are accurate and that the interpretations are accurate. Both require practicing your cleverness’ more than your ‘tenderness’.

It is important that you are not just a passive recorder, but an active one. As a listener, your job here is to validate what you’ve heard and ensure clarity and accuracy.

To seek

Finally, we come to probably the hardest situation – where you are requesting something of others.

Now, you may think it’s counter-intuitive to talk about ‘listening’ when the situation is to seek. Of course, seeking requires you to be eloquent in your request. But I put forth that active listening is just as important when you find yourself seeking the help or services of someone else.

If you start off by spending more time listening to your audience, you will achieve three things:

  1. Firstly, you are prioritising them and trying to build a bond with them, before you make your request. The simple act of listening creates an opportunity to connect and break down barriers.
  2. Secondly, you will be able to gain information that will help guide how your request should be positioned. Understanding their viewpoints and pain points before you even start will only be to your advantage to make your request more targeted.
  3. Finally, you will learn to ‘listen’ to how people are reacting to your request. Instinctively, you can observe and interpret body language, choice of words being used, arguments that are resonating, etc. Then be agile enough to pivot as needed.

Your objective is to achieve something. This doesn’t happen by forcefully demanding it from someone. It comes from understanding what’s in it for that other person or what their grievances are. These barriers may be logical and/or emotional. Until and unless you overcome these, you will not be successful in your request.

Hence you will need to focus on bringing the other person into the conversation and not keep them out of it. You do this through a combination of tenderness and cleverness and using the full arsenal of your active listening skills.

In summary

My key insight for you is to understand what your role is as a listener. Which one of the four situations applies to you? It’s very likely that there is more than one situation at play at the same time. Be clear of your expectations and thus know if you are expected to be clever or tender or both? Keep that in mind throughout the interaction.

As I started with a movie quote, I will end with one as well. There’s a great line in another favourite movie of mine, ‘White Men Can’t Jump’, where Wesley Snipes’s character says “You all listen but you supposed to hear it.”

When Wesley Snipes speaks, you listen

Let that sink in for a bit. As listeners, our job isn’t to just use our ears to take in the words and just ‘listen’ or ‘be present’. That’s necessary but not sufficient. To ‘hear’ means that you need to know what your expectations are as a listener and you need to achieve that. Someone’s communicating to you with a purpose – we need to play a part to ‘hear that and act accordingly.

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Sashe is certain that his 18-year career in IT was about leadership and not technology. He is currently the head of Leaderonomics Digital and ponders the use of technology in his free time.

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