The Mentor's Mind : Listen Up!

March 1, 2006
I often get accused of not listening to people. I hear what they’re saying.


I often get accused of not listening to people. I hear what they’re saying. Isn’t that enough?


Sounds like you’ve heard “You’re not listening to me” one too many times. Haven’t we all! You’ve heard it from your spouse, children, parents, friends, team members, and patients. When you’re so wrapped up in your own world, you tend to forget there are others (including your loved ones) who do not feel listened to. Chances are you have said those same words to others in your life. It’s not a good feeling, is it? It makes you feel like you’re not important and what you have to say isn’t worthwhile. That’s how others can feel about themselves when you don’t listen. As Ralph Nichols said, “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” Listening is an art, so listen up.

When you hear, you perceive sounds. Sounds go in one ear, and sometimes, right out the other. When you listen, you give someone your undivided attention and try to understand what you hear. There is a big difference. Listening requires energy - you are aware of another’s body language, maintain eye contact, ask questions, and listen to comprehend the message.

How can you tap into this energy? In the book “Co-Active Coaching” by Whitworth, Kimsey-House, and Sandahl, three levels of listening are described:

Level 1 - Internal listening:This occurs when you hear the words of the other person, but you think and focus on what the message means to you. If you are in a conversation with a kitchen designer about the specifics of your new kitchen, your main focus is on yourself and what you want your kitchen to look like. You listen to the designer, yet your mind wanders to the details of the cabinets, where you want the refrigerator, what kind of floor you want, etc.

Level II - Focused listening: In this level, you actively focus on the words of the other person. If the same designer gives you a presentation on the cost of your new kitchen, you completely focus on his or her words, listen to every detail, and are oblivious to everything else going on at home.

Level III - Global listening: This is the soft-focus listening that takes in everything. Whereas Levels I and II focus on words, Level III absorbs the energy, emotions, and nuances in the conversation and environment. Your senses take over and you pick up on the mood of the other person. You hear his or her sadness, joy, anger, fear, etc., and you feel it in the air. You watch the other’s body language and mirror it. Your intuition is working and your antennae are up. You actually can get a sense of your designer’s confidence and the value he or she places on his or her products.

So, let’s apply this to “Mary,” the patient in your dental chair - the one you are meeting for the first time for a comprehensive exam.

Level I finds you listening to Mary tell you her concerns, but your mind wanders to the person in the other operatory, or you remember that you have to pick up your daughter from soccer practice on the way home, or that the car is due for an oil change. You’re listening, but how much of the conversation are you missing?

Level II finds you more focused on what Mary is telling you, perhaps you are taking notes, maybe you’re repeating it back to her. You also are not aware that the hygienist just slipped in and left you a note. Getting better, right?

Now, take it to Level III and see the difference. You are completely engaged in the conversation with Mary, asking questions, picking up on her fear of being there, her objections to possible treatment, her hesitations, concerns, and wants. You are able to read her like a book. What better time to present treatment than when you have listened at Level III? Your acceptance level is bound to increase.

In this situation, you scheduled the time for this comprehensive exam and it is in your best interests to give the patient your attention. This scenario can be repeated during your team meetings. Create an environment free from distractions, give each team member an opportunity to speak freely, and then sit back and listen. You will be amazed at how productive and powerful such a meeting can be.

What happens when your child comes rushing in from school and wants to tell you all his or her news? What happens when your husband wants to share the highlights of his day with you? Can you really listen while you cook dinner, make your grocery list for the next shopping trip, and wonder how the implant patient from the morning is doing? Set aside time later to sit down with your child and husband, give each one your undivided attention, and really listen to what they say. They will appreciate you more and you will gain a deeper understanding of them.

Women are great multi-taskers who often think that doing five things at once is the only way to check off all the items on their to-do lists before the day runs out. If that describes you, ask yourself what you are missing along the way.

Deepen your conversations with people around you by listening. They will respond to you more readily and your connections with them will intensify. People will enjoy being around you. Let you’re not listening to me be a phrase from your past.

© 2006 Stephanie Houseman, DMD

StephanieHouseman, DMD
Dr. Houseman practiced dentistry in St. Louis for 25 years. She is married to a dentist, has two grown children, and understands all too well the demands we place on ourselves. She now works with dentists who want to simplify their lives so that they can enjoy themselves again. She is a graduate of the Coaches Training Institute, creator of the 7 Steps 2 a Balanced Life Program, and author of “The Balance Beam,” a weekly e-newsletter about balance and life. Reach Dr. Houseman at or (618) 639-5433.