Levels of Listening for Lawyers

As you may know from your own experience, there are many different ways to listen.  Here, we’ll assume you really are listening (versus ignoring or just selective listening). 

In essence, there are three levels of listening. The first one is:

 Transactional Listening

This is listening for the facts or content being transmitted by the words of the speaker. 

Most likely, this is where you live as a lawyer. 

A lot of what you do turns on the facts being related and the meaning of words. You are parsing what’s relevant evidence versus subjective opinion and what issues are legally actionable. You may be spotting points that you can rebut or that you hope to avoid. Lawyers themselves speak very carefully without making admissions or overstating what they intend. 

Sometimes we call this subjective listening, because the listener is trying to get something out of the communication that relates to their own goals.  How does this content affect me or my current priorities?  How does it help me do my job?  What does it mean for me, my own agenda or experiences?  

Often while at this level of listening, I am thinking about how I will respond to the content or what my next question or comment will be.   

Lawyers tend to be excellent at transactional listening because that’s a big part of their training and their job. But this kind of listening can limit them when they move outside of strictly legal discussions. Life is not an arm’s-length transaction.  
We need other types of listening skills. For example:

Relational Listening

This level of listening has a focus on verbal and NONVERBAL communications, like expression, tone, and emotional energy.  

This is not just about the content but includes how the communicators are engaging with the content, how they are engaging in the relationship, and the wider context of the content that provides meaning. 

The listener has other priorities here besides just receiving facts, like building the relationship, creating culture, connecting or establishing rapport, collaborating, showing empathy, or solving deeper problems. 

At this level, the listener is asking themselves, what are the social, relational, and contextual elements of the interaction, and how do all the pieces fit together?  

The third level of listening is:

Intuitive Listening

“Intuitive” listening is listening to the content, AND the nonverbal components, AND connecting with the larger context, AND hearing what the speaker is not saying.  This is listening between the lines to hear what the speaker may not even realize they really mean.   

This kind of listening detaches from the listener’s perspective to understand the communication from the SPEAKER’s perspective. 

An intuitive listener can actually tune into an awareness of the speaker’s whole experience, including emotions, assumptions, biases, interpretation, and meaning.  

This is what Stephen Covey would call “empathic listening” which “gets inside another person’s frame of reference.” 

This level of listening is powerful because, when we communicate, we go far beyond giving information or our “position” on something. We express what we want, we make assumptions based on our own experience, we instinctively protect our own beliefs about ourselves or how things work, we have relationship goals, and we work within the etiquette of what’s acceptable behavior in our group.  

Intuitive listening takes focus, and includes using your senses, your heart and your brain. You can’t be judgmental. Expect to take on a little risk in the conversation by saying what you think you are hearing that goes beyond the facts. If it’s clear you are open-minded and trying to understand, they won’t mind if you miss their meaning – they’ll clarify for you. People often bring unstated agendas to a conversation and bringing these out for nonjudgmental consideration can be highly effective.  

This kind of listening is rare, and extremely effective in building relationships, creating deep understanding, and establishing connection.

Conclusion

Lawyers can tend to live in the world of transactional listening.  And this makes sense, and many times this is appropriate.  But, how often do you use the different levels of listening in other situations? Do you find yourself in lawyer-mode, listening for the facts and issues? What if you consistently used relational and intuitive listening when dealing with people at the office? At home? Think of a situation that calls for more nuance, has a relational component, or involves some conflict. Assess how you currently listen in that situation, and stretch yourself to try a different kind of listening. 
 

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