The “third ear," a concept introduced by psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, refers to the practice of listening for deeper layers of meaning in order to glean what has not been said outright – for example, perceiving the emotional underpinnings conveyed when someone is speaking to you.
Developing this ability is a powerful tool, no matter what position you occupy in life. We can all become more attentive if we set out to develop our third ear, and our appreciation for what drives other people can be an asset in decision-making.
However, many people have trouble listening with two ears, let alone a third. So, what can we do to improve our capacity to listen more effectively? Here are six practical pointers to boost your active listening skills and become a better leader.
1. Enhance Your Listening Skills With Techniques Used by Psychologists
When discussing problems or challenges, people aren’t always direct. They might only hint at significant concerns, leave out certain parts of their story, or express important information in indirect ways. Aware of these tendencies, psychologists and therapists often tune into subtle body language cues when listening to their clients. These techniques can provide valuable insights into effective listening skills, even in a business setting. Consider how the following approaches could improve your listening skills:
- Stay present until the end: Rather than start to pick up your phone or look through papers on your desk as the person is leaving, try to continue to give them your undivided attention. They may express a critical concern as they’re about to leave.
- Mind the gaps: Attentive listeners are more likely to notice inconsistencies or things left unsaid. You can gently probe these areas, pause, and allow the speaker to share what was left unsaid. In doing so, you may uncover underlying anxieties or concerns crucial for guiding and supporting growth, whether personal or professional.
- Recognize indirect communication: Try to listen for how people express themselves. Not everyone is up-front about their feelings or concerns. Phrases like “It’s been somewhat challenging” might be softened expressions of frustration or discontent. Perhaps they really mean, “I am angry because project goals keep changing.” When you listen for the subtext, you can engage your “third ear” to delve into deeper meanings and emotions. This level of listening can lead to more insightful and productive conversations.
Adopting these techniques can help you learn how to be a better listener and foster a culture of open communication that builds trust and understanding in your professional relationships.
2. If You Want to Really Listen, Spare the Advice
Often in our eagerness to help, we share our own stories, experiences, or suggestions. But sometimes people don’t want a solution; they just want to be heard. Unsolicited advice is rarely appreciated and can even feel intrusive, akin to showing up at someone’s house unannounced.
Despite being well-meaning behavior, unsolicited advice can disrupt the listening process because the focus shifts from trying to understand the speaker to asserting our own perspective. Remember: Some people just need a listening ear. By resisting the urge to chime in with a solution, you're making space for people to speak freely. Try not to be afraid to let silence do its part, as it can encourage deeper, more heartfelt sharing. You never know what might be shared with you simply by being present in the conversation.
3. Cultivate Open Communication by Showing You’re Ready to Listen
For leaders, fostering an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their concerns is essential. But how can you ensure open lines of communication and prove that you’re not just hearing your colleagues and reports, but are actively listening to them? Consider:
- Reflecting on team culture: Consider the current communication dynamics. Are certain topics deemed taboo? Do team members hesitate to bring up issues for fear of repercussions? If so, you should actively work to change those perceptions by actively soliciting feedback in team meetings or one-on-one sessions, for example, or through providing anonymous feedback channels.
- Leading by example: Have you made it absolutely clear that your door is wide open to everyone, no matter the rung they occupy on the corporate ladder? Proclaiming an open-door policy is one thing, but it’s your demeanor, responses, and proactive engagement that truly demonstrate your commitment.
- Addressing barriers to communication: People’s perceptions tend to become their reality. They may perceive barriers to communication, even if they aren’t really there. Try to recognize these kinds of barriers and work to tear them down, perhaps by hosting training sessions on effective communication or providing platforms where team members feel safe sharing.
By taking these steps, you can signal that you value open communication and are committed to enhancing your listening skills. Remember, genuine accessibility and active listening – especially with your “third ear” engaged – can underscore a leader’s genuine care and concern for their team.
4. Prioritize Active Listening in Your Professional Development
Some people are natural-born listeners. We walk away from them feeling heard; we didn’t have to struggle to get a word in during the conversation, we weren’t interrupted midsentence, and we weren’t bombarded with advice or the listener’s own personal stories. If you recognize that active listening isn’t your strength, consider taking proactive measures to develop and improve this skill. It can be a game changer for both your personal and professional growth. Consider the following steps:
- Self-awareness: Try to reflect on your conversational habits. Are you allowing others to fully express themselves, or do you have a tendency to interrupt or shift focus to your own experiences? No one can really teach us how to change these tendencies; we have to consciously make the decision to break these habits.
- Commit to growth: Try to recognize that active listening is a skill that can be learned and refined. Consider prioritizing it in your leadership development.
- Seek external help: Consider enrolling in a strategic listening class or partnering with a business coach experienced in helping others hone their listening skills. The International Coach Federation (ICF), for example, offers a Coach Referral Service with a searchable directory of international, ICF-credentialed coaches who can help guide you.
Tuning your “third ear” is about more than just hearing words – it means deeply understanding and valuing others you interact with.
5. Challenge Your Assumptions
It’s natural for us to make assumptions while listening, as our brains are wired to be efficient and predictive. While these assumptions can help us process information quickly, constant references to past experiences or beliefs can also hinder our ability to fully understand what is being said. Individuals with great listening skills are aware of this cognitive bias and actively work against it.
As you engage in conversations, strive to remain present, listen attentively, and resist the urge to jump to conclusions or fill gaps with your own interpretations. Instead, try to pause and ask yourself: “Am I making up my own version of what I've heard, or am I really listening?” Our “third ear” demands that we move beyond these automatic judgments so as to perceive the speaker’s authentic message.
6. Embrace Humility to Enhance Listening
True listening often demands intellectual humility – the understanding that we don’t possess all the answers and that others might possess insights we haven’t considered. Put simply, it’s being comfortable with being wrong. Practicing humility in conversations can involve:
- Acknowledging that we have something to learn from others.
- Approaching dialogues with a beginner’s mind.
- Remaining open and receptive to new ideas.
- Resisting the urge to dominate or steer the conversation, based on preconceptions.
When we adopt a more humble approach, we shift away from an ego-driven state and become better equipped to use our “third ear.” In doing so we not only become better listeners, but are also more capable of fostering genuine connections with others. As consultant, teacher, leader, and speaker, Margaret J. Wheatley aptly said “We have the opportunity many times a day, everyday [sic], to be the one who listens to others, curious rather than certain.” Embracing this opportunity has the potential to enrich our understanding and nurture our relationships.
The Bottom Line
Tuning into our “third ear” is an effective leadership technique that allows us to dive deeper into conversations; demonstrate respect and understanding for our peers; and ultimately enhance our personal and professional relationships. When we make a concerted effort to go beyond surface level hearing to embrace the nuances and emotions of a conversation, we unlock a level of communication that can foster trust, empathy, and genuine connection.
A version of this article was originally published on August 12, 2013.
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