I recently had the opportunity to listen to James Comey speak. I know, he has become a polarizing figure – and in his own words, a reluctant celebrity. But instead of just sharing political gossip, he had powerful words to share about leadership.

I was taken by his comments about listening since it’s a topic near to my heart. I truly believe that when we become better listeners, we raise up the people and situations of our lives and give them more impact and meaning. This is the secret to making a difference in the world. So I was all ears when it came to listening (yes, pun intended!)

James Comey started by saying he once thought there were two kinds of listening, but now after 35 years of marriage, he believes that there are three.

  1. Waiting to speak. I am polite, I am quiet – but I am really just waiting for my turn to make my argument. Your comments may not be truly heard, and even if I hear them, it does not change what I am planning to say next. This type of listening is often visible in debate formats. I may repeat your words, but only in service of my own goals.
  2. Listening to respond.  With this approach to listening, I am all about taking your words – and hearing the intent and meaning in them. I think about what you are saying, and I respond specifically to you.
  3. Give me whatever you have. This third kind of listening is all about the associated body language – I am not just listening to your words, I am hungry to hear what you have to say. And you can tell that because of my powerful nonverbal signals – I am leaning in, focused, maybe nodding and gesturing. And I am giving some verbal cues – Comey calls that ‘making noises’ that indicate you want more, you want the speaker to continue.

    Here at Point Taken, we call that ‘verbal prompts’ – sounds or words that get people to open up more in a conversation. (for example, a well-timed ‘really!” or chuckle). It’s the nonverbal component that makes this type of listening so powerful.

Once we see this hierarchy of listening styles, it’s up to us to raise our game. Be honest about where you speak most of your listening time – and I challenge you to raise your game to the next level.  My advice is to step up in the scenarios that are most important to you, or where nothing else seems to be working. Both of those areas can benefit from an upgrade.

As always, I love to hear comments – and this is especially true about becoming a better listener. It’s the foundation of better leadership.