Psychology Today

By Judith E. Glaser |
Published: February 28, 2014

Put conversational intelligence to workNavigational-Listening2

Navigational listening is the most powerful tool for influencing others and creating transformation—perhaps, at times, more powerful that speaking. This highest and most expansive form of listening engages us with others in a spirit of co-creation

Many of us fall into listening habit patterns that stop us from engaging deeply with others. Instead we become we become addicted to being right—entrenched in positional thinking, defending what we believe without acknowledging other perspectives. By trapping us in thoughts from the past and locking us into conflicts, these habit patterns prevent us from generating new thinking and connecting with others in authentic, personal, powerful, and co-creative ways.

The listening mind is never blank or impartial. What we hear is influenced by our history—events, relationships, and experiences—and by our physical and emotional states. Feeling tired, angry, or stressful predisposes us to selective listening. Also, the speaker’s voice, dress, demeanor, mood, appearance or attitude can affect what we hear. And we may be so preoccupied with external things that we don’t listen at all.

Three Levels of Conversations

There are three levels or types of conversations, each with its own purpose – and each requires its own pattern of listening:

Level 1 Conversations: Inform. This transactional conversation involves an exchange of information. The goal is to confirm what you know and to align your meaning with others. There’s a give and take of information, as people share and confirm information. When we fall into Face-value Listening, we confuse fact with interpretation. Rather than informing each other and confirming what we each know and validating our information, we add our assumptions and interpretations—architecting two different views of realty, which then opens the door for conflict and misunderstanding.

Level 2 Conversations: Persuade. This positional conversation involves an exchange of power. The goal is to defend what you know and believe. When it’s working well, there’s a win-win solution. When we fall into Positional Listening, we listen to be right. Rather than giving each other the space for speaking out and sharing our points of view, we take a side. We advocate our positions and inquire into others positions with the intention of influencing and persuading them to our point of view—opening the space for resistance, conflict and manipulation.

Level 3 Conversations: Co-Create. This transformational conversation involves an exchange of energy. The goal is to explore each other’s viewpoint, to acknowledge it, to live in it, and learn from it. In this state of mind we are open to influence, to expand our view of what is possible, and to allow for generative thinking with others—co-creating conversations. We focus on learning what we don’t know and also on being open to learn what we don’t know we don’t know. When we co-create, we listen to connect, we ask questions for which we have no answers and navigate with others.

When we can move in and out of the right level for the task at hand, we are mastering Conversational Agility—the highest level of conversational intelligence.

Most organizations lack co-creative conversational ability (Level 3), and even struggle with persuasive conversations (Level 2). Instead, they focus on telling and selling—or debating endlessly without taking action. Learning Navigational Listening skills enables each person to size up the situation, choose the level of conversations needed and activate conversational intelligence in relationships, teams and organizations.

Four Harmful Listening Habit Patterns

Consider these four types of harmful listening habit patterns:

1. Noise-in-the-attic listening. When we sit silently while others talk, we appear to be listening; inwardly, however, we are listening to the noise in the attic—disengaged from the speaker’s ideas and involved in our own mental processes. Such listening tends to develop when we are told as children: “Don’t talk while I’m speaking!” “Don’t interrupt me!” “Don’t ask so many questions!” Conditioned by these warnings, many of us become preoccupied with our own internalizations: “Who does she think she is?” Or, we resort to reverie—returning from time to time to listen to what is being said.

NeuroTip 1: The talk in our head can take over our listening and become what we remember. Our self-talk becomes more prominent in our minds than what our ears hear. If the self-talk contains catalytic and emotional phrases like “Don’t interrupt me,” or if the words communicate judgment such as, “you stupid idiot,” our brains produce neuro-chemicals that activate our fear-networks in the primitive brain, closing down our executive brain, the prefrontal cortex. When this is turned off by the chemistry of fear, we forfeit empathy, trust, and good judgment. We lose our ability to handle complexity, and resort to old thoughts rather than process what is happening in the moment.

To prevent noise-in-the-attic listening, become aware when your brain is full of I-centric self-talk and turn it off. Instead, listen to connect to the other person and focus on we. By attending to the other person and removing the judgment, you create a neutral listening place in your brain to hear what others are saying without judgment. This mindshift also activates the mirror neurons, enabling you to experience the meaning others bring to their words, to connect, to build trust, and to make others feel safe to open up to you.

2. Face-value listening. We think we are hearing facts, when we are hearing interpretations. In face-value listening, the listener isn’t mentally checking back to see whether the words explain what they purport to explain. This explains why people can differ dramatically in their perceptions. Many of us hear what’s in our heads, rather than listening to connect with what others are really saying. Good listening requires guided attention to the meanings others are bringing to life.

NeuroTip 2: When we listen, we bring our own interpretations to the words we hear. We try to match what we think and know with what we are hearing. The actual act of matching up comparables in our head changes the meaning of what is being said. Our brains are designed with internal filing cabinets, which hold our personal history of experiences plus our own dictionary of what words mean. Too often we listen with face-value listening, thinking that others are sharing the same dictionary—when in fact, we don’t.

To prevent face-value listening, remember that your dictionary differs from that of others. Take the time to ask questions for which you have no answers. Rather than thinking you know what they mean, listen for distinctions—and ask questions that will bring out the meanings others have in mind and create new insights.

3. Positional listening. Such highly partial listening can lead to faulty assumptions and destroy team morale. For example, a leader might listen to her president’s annual report to determine whether her division will be growing. What she hears could affect her performance and her relationships with co-workers.

NeuroTip 3: When we are fearful about our role, or when there is high uncertainty about the future, our mind seeks clues assuring we have a secure place in our tribe. Our fears about where we belong in the pack influence how we listen, how we feel, and how we engage with others. The lower primitive brain, particularity the Amygdala, screens for concerns about our I; and when we feel excluded, judged, or insignificant, we activate the fear hormone cortisol and become more positional.

To prevent positional listening, engage with others around shared success and how you can support each other’s success. This we-centric conversation shifts the attention from you and your fears to connecting with others in positive ways. Once we know that they are friends, not foes, we bond and trust them. Our bodies start to produce oxytocin, a hormone that activates higher collaboration, even co-creation.

4. Navigational listening. Navigational listening—the art of listening to connect, to partner, and to perform better—is the most we-centric form of listening. Navigating with others leads to an expanded view of what is possible, often ending in a decision, strategy, change in behavior, or point of view. This highest and most expansive form of listening engages you with others in a spirit of co-creation, elevates your conversational intelligence, and exponentially elevates your chances for mutual success.

NeuroTip 4: When we shift from I-centric to WE-centric thinking, we enhance our partnership in co-creating the future. The prefrontal cortex, the executive brain, is where empathy, trust, good judgment, strategic thinking, emotional regulation and foresight into the future reside. When we listen to connect, we build bridges from my brain to yours, enabling the capacity to hold a broader view. Conflict gives way to co-creation, and the conversations shifts from the past to the future; oxytocin, the bonding hormone, flows freely; and the level of collaboration catalyzes new insight.

To enhance navigational listening, note when you are falling into positional behaviors, defending your point of view, and being right at all cost. Become sensitive to how your need to be right might be creating resistance in others. If you can’t turn off this addiction in your mind, write down what your brain is saying—this acknowledges your thoughts and ideas and releases their grip on your mindset. Then, refocus your attention on the listening to connect. You will find a new level of energy emerging from the dialogue empowering your conversation, and elevate your wisdom mutually.

As we evolve from Level I informing conversations to Level II persuasive conversations to Level III co-creating conversations, we elevate each other’s conversational intelligence. We explore what others are thinking to strengthen the relationship and our understanding of what they are thinking. We learn to step into their shoes and see the world from their eyes and ears. When we listen to navigate with others, resistance gives way to discovery, and fear gives way to trust.

Practicing Navigational Listening

To practice navigational listening, carefully take note to others’ answers—to their phrasing, context, and words to get clues to the meanings behind the words. To reduce the ambiguity of meaning and intent, ask questions, rephrase and restate what was heard.

Try asking these Level 3 Transformational Questions:

  • What is the situation?
  • How are you approaching it?
  • What outcomes do you want to create?
  • What are you focusing on?
  • What resources do you need?
  • What assumptions do you hold?
  • What does success look like?
  • How will you measure success?
  • What is holding you back?
  • What are your strategies for moving forward?
  • How will the desired outcome impact you and others?
  • How will you prepare everyone for the potential changes?
  • How will you reduce fear?
  • What new ideas and approaches are you considering?
  • How will you introduce them to others?
  • How will you engage people in creating the new outcomes?
  • What would you like to see happen?
  • How important are these changes to you?
  • What would happen if these changes did not take place?
  • What are the implications if they do take place?
  • Who will benefit from the changes?
  • How can you ensure the right people are engaged?

Navigational Listening is the most powerful tool of conversationally intelligence. It enables us to peer into the minds of others and set more helpful, meaningful, and satisfying objectives for action. When we adopt the framework of Navigational Listening, and honor the 3 Levels of Conversation, we enhance our ability to communicate, thereby making more timely and better decisions within our teams and organizations.

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