The art of listening

In modern management theory, it’s an open secret that knowledge and wisdom are not gained by talking, but by listening. Yet, listening is not just a question of communication and social interaction alone – it’s a uniquely complex process revolving around the ears and our ability to hear and process sound. Ancient Hebrew thinking actually saw the ears as the seat of wisdom, not the brain.

Business coaches still refer to the ear as an essential organ today, most often influenced the concept of Co-Active Coaching developed by Laura Whitworth, Karen Kimsey-House, Henry Kimsey-House and Phillip Sandahl, which introduced the idea of three levels of listening back in 1998 – internal listening, focused listening and global listening.

Since the first edition, the book has been re-published multiple times and continues to be a success, which is why business coaches keep refining and paraphrasing the Whitworth model to explain just how important listening is in a time of permanent digital distraction. But research hasn’t stopped there.

Brigette Hyacinth from Trinidad & Tobago (pictured below right) has now approached the issue from a different perspective. The founder of MBA Caribbean, a management school focusing on promoting a model of sustainable leadership, has researched the different implications of active and passive listening, with special reference to the three parts of the human ear – the outer, middle and inner ear. As such, the three-pronged Hyacinth model is taking a more holistic approach involving body and mind at the same time.

According to Hyacinth, level one listening would refer to the outer ear and its most basic function – the intake of information. She says ‘informative listening’ is a relatively simple process where we not only receive information, but process it. “The main attention is on ourselves and our interpretation of the information relayed to us,” she says. “Unfortunately, many a conversation will end here in modern business.”

Level two is linked to the middle ear, where a second quality can come into play – appreciative listening. “During this stage, the listener will appreciate the speaker’s body language and other non-verbal cues to add value to the conversation,” says Hyacinth. “The attention is now fully with the other person to ensure we pick up on what they say and, more importantly, what they don’t say. It’s often referred to as an important milestone to meaningful leadership.”

Level three, which is connected to the inner ear in the Hyacinth model, is all about intuition and crucial for gaining a complete understanding of a situation. “Without it, any problem-solving attempt will affect a symptom only and not the root cause,” she says. “It’s about reading between the lines and being genuinely attentive to the meaning and significance of what the other person is saying. It will enable leaders to make better decisions, build stronger relationships and resolve problems more quickly by giving them greater access to their intuition.”

Hyacinth says she often refers to Paul Bennett, the Chief Creative Officer at US design and consulting firm IDEO, to point out how important listening across all three levels is to achieve leadership success. “Bennett once said the one piece of advice he wished he had known in his early twenties was to focus on listening. As the head of a globally renowned business, he learned that effective leaders can put aside distractions, stop multi-tasking and be truly present with people when speaking with them by being fully aware of all three levels of listening,” she explains.

Building on that, Hyacinth says that especially in addressing employees, listening the “right” way will transmit respect and build trust, leading to the creation of a more motivated and committed team. In that sense, listening can be a great cost reduction tool as it can solve problems, enhance creativity and make a business more efficient.

“It is here where new awareness often shows up, and the possibility for profound change,” Hyacinth says. “In that sense, level three listening is the most powerful kind of listening a leader can employ because the transformational potential of any conversation will be maximised if both communicators are fully engaged.”

However, it’s important to always be connected to some kind of moral compass, she adds. “Listening with a level three approach must include listening to that inner voice guiding you in the right direction. In 2012, UK businessman Kenneth Hunt, of Hunt Kidd Solicitors, and his business partner Barbara Grayton were both sentenced to face prison terms after Hunt had fiddled £1million of company accounts to keep it afloat when the recession hit.

“When Grayton became aware of the fraud, she went along with it and had to face the consequences of her actions. While listening led to a transformative action in this scenario, especially in Ms Grayton’s case, any ethical concerns were simple overheard due to the lack of a moral compass. Level three listening may have helped her pause and reflect more carefully on Mr Hunt’s suggestion.”

Brigette Hyacinth, who is frequently booked as a keynote speaker on the topic of active and passive listening, says powerful listening skills are therefore always accompanied by stillness, silence and solitude to be able to connect with every voice that needs to be heard. “It is only through silence and stillness that we can come to our thoughts in any meaningful way. Whole organisations can succeed or fail depending on leaders’ ability to listen at such a deep level, which is why modern business coaching is still focused on seemingly simply processes like the intake and processing of verbal information.”

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