5 Levels of Listening: Workplace Edition - with Miriam Meima

Feb 07, 2023

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Did you know the word “listen” contains the exact same letters as the word “silent?” Are you truly silent when listening, and if not, how does this affect your ability to lead others in the workplace? 

This week on the podcast, I had a fun and informative conversation with Miriam Meima of 2M Leaders about Stephen Covey’s Five Levels of Listening, as applied to the workplace. Miriam tells us that most people are at a level three of listening (at best), but we should strive to be at a level five.

In this episode we discuss the following:

[4:39] What communications you are missing when you aren’t fully listening

[4:55]:  How to avoid unnecessarily escalating issues to HR through active listening 

[10:38] How people “trip” into ignoring someone at work

[13:14] How to know if you are a “pretend” listener and how this effects other’s perception of you as a leader

[18:52]: How to know if you’ve reached “true listening”

Listen to the full YouTube episode HERE

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Miriam Meima

Karly Wannos: [00:00:00] miriam, thank you so much for being here and welcome to the show.

Miriam Meima: Thank you for having me, Karly. It's an honor to be here.

Karly Wannos: Absolutely. So today we are talking all about listening and listening specifically as a form of being a better communicator. And I know you have a lot of great information to share with me and my listeners.

But before we get started, I wanted to mention something to you. So I recently read an article and tell me if you've heard this before. It pointed out that the word listen contains the exact same letters as the word silent.

Did you know that?

Miriam Meima: Oh my goodness. I did not.

Karly Wannos: Isn't wild.

Miriam Meima: I love

Karly Wannos: Yes.

And then so I, I had to do a double take at that. And yes, it is the exact same letters. And of course, the fun part about that is in order to truly listen, you need to be silent, right? And not just silent, meaning you are not actively speaking, but silent in your mind so that all of the outside noise that's going [00:01:00] on, you don't hear all of that and.you can actively think and listen and therefore be a better communicator. So I just wanted to start with that. I thought that was a fun fact, but I wanna hear from you now, why, obviously, I think we all have our idea of why listening is so important, but from your perspective, why is it such an important tool as far as communication is concerned?

Miriam Meima: Yes. Thank you for asking that. So I believe that listening, I think most people would say listening is part of communication. I think most people. More or less they understand that. Now we'll dive in a little bit into really what is listening, and most people I don't think have ever truly been listening in their life or in their leadership.

So I'm in interested in exposing the listeners to a new framework for that, but, in general, I think that listening is a foundation for effective leadership, period. I think that leadership is enabling those around us to execute as well as it is to execute ourselves. And so all of that is re requires an exchange of [00:02:00] information and most of the time we are missing out on what other people are trying to communicate.

And if we can learn to listen to each. We're not only unlocking the potential in that exchange, but we're actually unlocking the potential in the individual cross from us because it builds a greater level of respect, understanding, clarity. I could go on and on, but I'll pause there for a moment.

Karly Wannos: , Right,? So especially in the workplace, it all goes hand in hand, right? And your employees can tell when you are not listening to them, when you are thinking of something else that's on your plate. By the way, we all have a million things going on and a million things going on in our brain, but people can tell when you're not truly listening or when you're getting ready for the next question.

Especially us as lawyers when we're in a deposition or we are cross-examining a witness. You are asking the question, you are needing to hear the answer, but you are actively thinking of the next thing that you need to say right away. And it's just I think that it's very [00:03:00] difficult to do and it ends up in a lot of challenges and problems with communicating and communicating. I'm sure you can tell us, is one of the main foundations of a good leader because without communication, everything falls apart, right? You can't hear the needs or the requests or the desires or really anything that your employees need to exchange with you.

So that's all. That's all a really great . And then what happens? I think you probably touched on this, but what happens when you're not actively listening in your communications? What types of things are you missing? ,

Miriam Meima: oh my gosh. We're missing most of what's trying to be communicated. My understanding is there's about a thousand words a minute in our minds, and at most we're going to get a hundred words out of our mouth.

So just the idea of taking large concepts or visions or feelings or thoughts or opinions. And then [00:04:00] we forward relate words, a thousand of them in our mind, and then we filter them to a hundred to exchange them with someone else. And that process, We're not very good at that as humans, but we listen to other people.

We think we are, I'm gonna use quotes. We're listening to other people and so we're massively filtering those a hundred words and applying confirmation bias to them. So what's happening is we put such weight on what we do here and assume that's what the person is saying. That's what they're, that's what they meant rather than getting curious about what they're trying to say.

And that's the major shift I find is in that leaders that are able to focus on what the person is trying to say, they're catching business issues sooner they're able to basically have a line of sight into areas of the business that other leaders are not able to. Issues that are escalated via HR to executives more often than not [00:05:00] could have been resolved thoughtfully with the original, either the manager or the peer or the employee if they had just been trained to listen.

So I, even though I call this a leadership skill, I think it is something that every human can be trained and learn how to do, and that it serves us not only in our work, but. In our personal lives, it's amazing what isn't it feel good when our partner actually listens to us? But yes to your point, it doesn't always happen.

And I think that sometimes we can recognize the opportunities if we apply this concept to our personal life first.

Karly Wannos: And communication. It can obviously be complicated, right? Like you don't use the same words that I use and vice versa. And especially in the workplace, there might be emotions involved.

People might be nervous or scared or not know how to appropriately articulate certain things. So listening, it's obviously one of your senses. Sight, why not use all of your senses in order to communicate, See somebody and see their [00:06:00] non-verbal communication skills and see what's going on.

Shortly before we started recording this podcast, we were having a little bit of issues with audio. And you said that you noticed my non-verbal facial expressions were , Yeah. Had a concern of panic and, that's obviously a form of communication too that you were able to pick up on that so quickly,

okay, so what exactly can leaders do?

And I know that we wanna get into Steven Covey's five levels of listening, so if you wanna tell me about that as we go through, but what can leaders do to be better? Listeners?

Miriam Meima: You touched on something important. One is just starting to be present, and so knowing that wherever we are, can we be there a hundred percent and the, we can't always, sometimes we need to multitask, but of course when we're multitask, we think we're multitasking, but we're actually just.

Switching focus areas very quickly, which is very taxing on the prefrontal cortex. So as our date goes on, the more we multitask, the less present we are, and the [00:07:00] less effective, the less generative our thinking, the less effective we are overall. . Yes. Yeah. So something that we can do is one, just choose to be wherever we are. And I think this takes a lot of self-awareness. We need to become students of ourself, of when can I be engaged with someone else and when can I not, and do I trust that I can be honest about that. . So if we give ourselves permission and empower ourselves to say no to things we can't be present for, even in meetings where it seems like there's a hundred people on the Zoom or 10 people on the Zoom or whatever it might be, one person getting distracted definitely impacts the whole energy of the group.

And so the more, if we could all just be fully present, that would get us a lot of the way there. And open-mindedness, or what I would call curiosity is the. Important factor in being able to listen. And I, my understanding is that we basically, when I love, I'm so [00:08:00] curious, I love to ask people questions and I genuinely want to know the answer.

So even when I ask someone something like, how are you, I'll ask a barista at Starbucks, how are you? And they'll tell me their life story and my friends will be like, what happened? Just there. . What happened is that I was so curious. I created this little bubble of belonging for that person to the extent to which they felt safe sharing with me.

Very honestly what was happening in an unfiltered way, and there's a, there's actually oxytocin that's gets released in our bodies to help us. Basically, it's like a truth serum. People will start to be increasingly honest with us when we are. When they're in the presence of someone who feels present and curious

Karly Wannos: And I can tell that you, when you ask, how are you?

You are really interested and the person really wants to tell you, and it's not like a formality, hi, how are you? Fine, thanks. How are you doing? You genuinely want to know, and that's probably why the person tells you and opens up because you can [00:09:00] tell. Exactly.

Miriam Meima: They can tell. And what are, how they can tell it.

Some of it is conscious and some of it is unconscious, and it's, but if we actually ask questions that we wanna know the answer to, then all of a sudden we're creating a relationship either inside the workplace or outside with people. We're, again they're more prone to be honest. And it saves us a heck of a lot of time.

Level 1

Miriam Meima: So these are the five levels from Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The fifth habit is seek first to understand and second to be understood. And in that, that pillar of what he poses is embedded the five levels of listening. I just find it, having studied listening for two decades, I find it to be the most helpful framework.

And so I really love to leverage it. And I would say that if we did focus on understanding others, then usually we will gain a level of communication and clarity that we can't if we only focus on being understood. So that's what this is all[00:10:00] about so level one is ignoring, and that's when my husband and I are having a conversation and I'm listening, and then all of a sudden, I remember I wanted to text someone or send an email, and I opened my phone.

And I am now, I'm not making eye contact with him anymore. He is talking to me and honestly I don't know what he's saying and I'm not pretending to know what he is saying. He can clearly see that I'm no longer engaged in the conversation and I. He used to tell that story reversed cuz it happens both ways.

But I realized , it was probably more vulnerable and accurate to put myself with the first

Karly Wannos: person.

. It's not purposely ignoring someone. It's just from your example, a random thought might pop into your mind. I have to text message this person. Oh yes, let's start doing it. And then. Little do you know, you're no longer listening to the person anymore because then you're full into your

Miriam Meima: text.

Exactly. It's like a, it's like week f, week fall. It's like a trip We trip [00:11:00] into not listening quite often and into ignoring someone. Okay. And then sometimes we can come to and rewind the tape, so to speak, and catch back up. But level one is just ignoring, so we're not engaged in the conversation.

Karly Wannos: So I guess the way around that then is to make sure, to your point before that you're present, that you have removed your distractions as much as you can, and to put yourself in a position where you're not being tempted to ignore, right?

Miriam Meima: I'll just, yes, that's right. And so b , are you hearing Maybe we should come up with a code. Okay. ,

Karly Wannos: I can hear you. It might be a little bit delayed with the camera, but okay,

Miriam Meima: great. If it's n it's never not good, you just give me a one of those.

All right. , beautiful. If you're listening, hopefully some of this laughter's coming through to you because I feel like we are literally in real time getting to practice this. Technology is not necessarily on our side, but this happens in real life all the time with our colleagues, right? But.

But [00:12:00] yes, you are absolutely right that the more present we are, the more likely we are to essentially rise up to higher levels of listening. And of the five levels, the higher we can be, the more effective we are as a listener. So level one is not listening, and we wanna avoid the N F L possible. And if I'm not available to listen, I'm not available to listen.

Hopefully I can be clear about that. Level two is pretending, and that's where I. will nod and I'll say , even though I'm thinking of something completely different. And so that might be, I'm preparing what I'm gonna say or I'm playing in my head what I just said, or I'm thinking about my shopping list, but non-verbally it, I'm sending signals as though I'm listening.

So this


Karly Wannos: like one level up from ignoring. Not only are you ignoring, but you are actively making it seem like you're listening by pretending that you're listen.

Miriam Meima: Exactly. And usually for the level two listener, they feel very sneaky cuz like they're [00:13:00] like, . . they feel like they're engaged.

And I don't need to pay attention to this, but if you're actually speaking to someone and you're present and they're in level two listening, it is so obvious, right? We know when someone's in level two because they say so. offbeat, like they'll nod and smile when it's not an appropriate moment to nod and smile.

So as stealth as we may feel, , it is not working. People very clearly know when we are not listening and we are in love with two pretending. It's

Karly Wannos: so funny that you mentioned that I have a family member that I speak to very often. I'm not going to name names, but when he's distracted or doing something else, he goes, and you're having a conversation.

It's Uhhuh, Uhhuh, , , , uhhuh, , uhhuh, . And you're like, but you're a hying to stuff that I haven't said yet, . And it's so obvious that you're not listening.

Miriam Meima: So obvious. And in that moment, what would you wish she would do?

Karly Wannos: Hang up and start over. ,

Miriam Meima: right? Yeah. It's get off the phone or start listening to me because I [00:14:00] don't wanna, it's it's insulting, kind, right?


Karly Wannos: Because it's so obvious to the person speaking, right? And you're like, yes. You mean you're not a good

Miriam Meima: pretender. I know you're very obvious. Not a good pretender. Managers do this to their direct reports all the time and not it's. Meant to be nefarious. It really is like that's the best that I've got in this moment and I'm multitask.

There might be a million reasons for it, but it can have a really undesired impact. People can start to feel disrespected and it can start to spiral in ways that are very surprising almost to the person who just isn't ready to have a conversation that. And

Karly Wannos: then what's gonna happen, I'm thinking in the workplace, is you're going to, the manager is gonna say yes to something that should have been a no answer, right?

Because they're not really listening and they're trying to half listen and they're giving their response, but they're actually giving the wrong response. And then some going, someone's going to act on that, and it's not gonna be the thing that he wants done.

Miriam Meima: Exactly right. This [00:15:00] can also go sideways if someone has spent a lot of time preparing for a presentation and they're really paying attention to the feedback loop from people in the audience, and if they either are diverting their attention or they're in level two listening, then it can send.

Unintended signal to the person presenting. So for all those reasons, we wanna stay out of level two listening if we can.

Level 3

Karly Wannos: Okay, good. So don't ignore. Yeah, don't bring a pretender. And this takes us to number three,

Miriam Meima: which is num number three is selective listening. And this is what people think they're supposed to be doing when they're listening and all just as like a spoiler alert, this is not where we want to be as leaders.

But level three is selective. So this is where I'm basically I'm getting the cliff notes of what you're saying. I'm listening, but I'm filtering, I'm focusing on the key words. I'm getting the gist of it. And this is when confirmation bias is heavily at play. So I, that, that is when I think I know what [00:16:00]you're gonna say.

I know what you're getting at. I'm thinking. Yeah. So I'm fast forwarding to through your conversation, through this conversation that we're having, and again I'm probably thinking about what I wanna say next, or I'm waiting for you to stop talking. So I'm listening and I'm engaged, but there's a two-way conversation happening in my mind.

Karly Wannos: Okay. So this one's interesting because as. Lawyers, when we are taking somebody's deposition, we say, listen to the entire question and don't anticipate. The response that's being given, right? Don't you think you know where I'm going with this question? Don't interject and interrupt and give your answer, because my question might be something totally different than from what you think it is, right?

And so I think that this kind of comes into play with selective listening. You think you know what it is, but really at the end of the day, it might not be. So that's number one, right? You might be getting the wrong [00:17:00] information. And then number two. how does this affect your employee? If you're only listening selectively to what they have to say, they are not going to feel that you're giving them the time of day.

They are not gonna feel that they are being heard. You're probably feeling like they're going, that you're rushing them through whatever they have to say. Cuz you're trying to get onto the next


Miriam Meima: right? . Yeah, exactly. All of those things. But again, this is what most people think is listening, so they're, most people are moving through the world with selective listening and Okay.

Everything you said was exactly right, is that they're missing out on really what's being communicated. And I, again, I'm putting a lot of weight on people's words rather than focusing on the tone of their voice or their pacing or their mood. And so I'm missing major signals, and I'm only focusing on the verbal communi.

Karly Wannos: Okay. And let me ask you, as we are going through these, are we progressively getting Yes. Better? Okay. So

Miriam Meima: we, yes, we wanna be as high as possible. Okay.

Karly Wannos: [00:18:00] Got it. So we're at number three of five, so we're in the middle right now. , there's room for improvement.

Miriam Meima: Yes. I would say that true listening. It doesn't start until level four, what I would call true listening. And so when I'm working with leaders and I'm coaching them on how to listen, or I'm doing a training on how to listen, I say, really listening starts at number four. And that's attentive listening.

Karly Wannos: And most people are at three, you said, right?


Miriam Meima: best.

Karly Wannos: At best. Wow, that's a really terrible statistic. . So if you say that true active listening is at four, we're everybody, most of the people are under in the best case scenario. So yes. What, do you have a statistic for that? I know I'm putting you on the spot and you, if you don't that's fine.

But what, I'm curious, what percentage of people are out of four or five.

Miriam Meima: I don't have a statistic in terms of research backing. What I will say is the number one complaint of on aggregate of any organization or all organizations and but also all [00:19:00]relationships outside of work, is communication.

That's the number one reported challenge every company has as communication. . , and I really believe that's rooted in our capacity to exchange information, which is rooted in listening. There's other pieces to it that I could dive into at another time, but I think it really comes back to listening.

Anecdotally, I would say less than 10% of leaders. That's what I was gonna guess

Karly Wannos: too. Yeah. And that's so interesting because the majority of the people think they're probably doing great. And it's probably this deficit is probably due to a lack of education. It was never pointed out, or they just don't know.

They need to listen to your podcast episode when it comes out. . Yes. Do identify their deficiencies.

Miriam Meima: Okay. . Yeah, that's exactly right. We've never known what good looked like or what true listening was. I do think that people may have experienced it, and I would really encourage people to think about when did they feel heard?

Who were they talking to, and what were the [00:20:00] qualities that person was exhibiting when they really felt heard? Cuz that will map to these levels that we're going through as well. Essentially provide another reference point, but level four is attentive listening, and this is a good place to be. It's not the best.

Level 4

Miriam Meima: So we'll get there in a moment, level five. But level four is attentive. This is where I'm actually taking in new information. I am open-minded enough to start to pay attention to what you're trying to. and I will, I may have clarifying questions that are emerging. I might start to notice what are the pieces of information that I'm hearing you say that I disagree with, but I am really listening to you.

I'm present and I'm curious and I'm paying attention to what it is that you're saying. So I'm, and that's a very good place to be when decisions are being made because I want to be discerning about. What, where there might be potential disagreement or where what I might need to double click on in order to create [00:21:00] clarity.

And so level four is a really good place to be, and if people only got to level four, woo, the world would be a better place if people could just get to level four.

Karly Wannos: All right. That's level four. I don't have any questions on that one. Okay, great.

Miriam Meima: Let's just power on then. , let's, yeah. You're like It was pretty self.

Yeah, that

Karly Wannos: was pretty self-explanatory. Attentive. I got that.

Miriam Meima: Attentive. And so the level five, oh my gosh. Carly, level five is fricking magic. It is just magic. Level five is. Gen. I call it generative listening. I'm pretty sure it's called empathetic listening in Covey's original model. But for me it's generative listening.

This is where I actually stop thinking about whether I disagree or agree. I'm, I am literally just, I'm so curious about what you're getting at. That I'm suspending any opinions that I have, and I'm just creating space for you honestly, to discover what you need to say. That is where other people [00:22:00] will gain clarity for themselves in the presence of a level five listener.

So if we're talking about strategic planning or problem resolution, or if someone is feeling really stuck or they're having some sort of issue at work, , I don't wanna solve it right away. I wanna, first, I wanna understand it, and so I am just gonna literally let go of all of my thoughts and all of my opinions and just make space for that person to clarify what is it they're thinking and feeling.

 And share it. And so I'm really paying attention to things that are underneath and in between their.

Karly Wannos: That one's really interesting. I have a note here that level five requires the greatest amount of mental and emotional energy, and I like what you said about just letting go and leaving space.

It's almost like you are allowing yourself to be a sponge and just to soak up everything that you are hearing and seeing without processing it and determining what you're gonna do with that information yet. [00:23:00]

Miriam Meima: Yes. Exactly. And so in level five listening, I'm gonna, I'm gonna feed back what I hear.

What I hear you saying is, or I noticed when you said that you got really tense or I'm using all sorts of act, what people would call active listening skills, and I'm embedding those in level five listening. But the state of mind that I'm in is. , I'm just paying attention to you. And so yes, it does it's an investment.

And that's what I would love to see more leaders doing is consciously choosing, oh, this is a moment when I need to rise to level five. And it's, when I'm working with executive teams, it's one of the things I see the most. If there's just it feel, feels like we're spiraling in a conversation and one person rising to level five, listen.

We'll be able to cut through that noise and be able to say, here's what I think we're saying, and get back on track. So it's the highest ROI investment I think that we can make.

Karly Wannos: So because of what you just said, I was thinking you're not going to be doing it necessarily all the [00:24:00] time because it is, it can be time consuming, but you are gonna have to make time for those really important issues.

So that's another one to be able to identify the times that it's actually needed so that you can dedicate. that time, because again, let's face it, we're all very busy, especially in the workplace. And you're gonna have to prioritize that sometimes.

Miriam Meima: Yeah, exactly. And that's the main thing, is creating the opportunity to recognize when is this deserving of level five listening and have cultivated the skill to be able to do it, and that it just takes practice.

So I would say most leaders, when I ask them on average, where are you? when you're in team meetings, wh where, what do you average or when you're in one-on-ones, what do you average? And those say two to three in team meetings and three to four in one-on-ones. And if we could just shift that to four to five, they would be getting a much higher ROI and those exchanges.

Karly Wannos: And so I assume that a lot of this comes from. [00:25:00] Educating leaders and practicing, right? This is not something that you're just going to read a book and pick up overnight. So how often do you think management teams and leadership should engage in this type of education and training? ,

Miriam Meima: I think good training wheels is once a day.

Once a day, take at least five minutes and ask someone. It can be at work or at home, but ask someone a question that you genuinely want to know the answer to. , it's a question that you don't know the answer to and you want to, and ask them a question. It could be, how was your day? But you actually genuinely wanna hear or it can be.

what was, it literally could be anything. If it was someone at work, I would probably say, what is it that's been on your mind that we haven't had a chance to talk through recently? . And I would ask it in a very generative way, and then I'm just gonna suspend my thinking as much as possible and just listen and see if I just let it go.

Just listen. And it, honestly, I say five minutes, but [00:26:00] most people can't really make. Two without feeling like they need to interject or share, agree or disagree. And so it's a fun thing for competitive people to set a timer and see how you do. ,

Karly Wannos: that does sound like it would be pretty difficult. . So for, and I know that you do a lot of these trainings through your company, 2M Leaders and so if companies are going to have formal training where you come in and you train leadership teams, is that something that you would recommend like once a year? I would assume on a reoccurring basis would be

Miriam Meima: yeah. Typically I li I believe every organization has a very unique way of operating and there are some best practices that are generally applicable, such as listening, but overall, most cases I'm taking listening and I'm embedding it into a very customized program that's unique to them and hopefully, Handing it off to the organization to be able to run internally on a recurring basis, but sometimes that's just not feasible.

They just don't have the bandwidth or the employee's [00:27:00] headcount to be able to provide that. So yeah, they some companies will bring me in. I find though, if I can work with the senior leaders long enough that they can model it, it starts to filter its way through the culture of the company. and start to naturally get reinforced, and so they'll get training in onboarding and maybe get a question as part of performance evaluation every once or twice a year.

Karly Wannos: That's amazing. That's actually a good example of where it actually does start from the top and trickles down into the workforce, so yes. Thank you so much, Miriam. I loved hearing about the five levels of listening. It's definitely very eye-opening. And I think it's something that everybody needs to work on, right?

As you were mentioning in the workplace or in your personal lives. And a lot of people probably, it would be interesting for my listeners to go through the different stages and test where they think they fall, right? Because a lot of us. Think we fall a lot higher than we actually do, and then practice it in real life.

And see if you can [00:28:00] become a better listener.

Miriam Meima: . It does become fun, especially if we can laugh at ourselves when we're at one or two and and I definitely do. It's gonna happen and so let's just increase our self-awareness around it so that we can.

Karly Wannos: Absolutely. Thank you again so much for being here.

I will leave your contact information in the show notes if anybody wants to get in touch with you. And thank you for sharing your expertise with us.

Miriam Meima: On behalf of all of your listeners, Carly, thank you for all of the time and energy you invest in making this podcast available to everyone.

It is absolutely a gift and a labor of love, and I'm grateful to be part of it.

Karly Wannos: Oh, thank you so much. I appreciate. We'll talk soon. Take care.



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