Listening in an Interview – – Say What?!? 

“How many of you think you could stand to become a better listener?” said the workshop facilitator, as he raised his own hand. Every participant’s hand went up in response to join his. 

That was the opening question in our culture workshops to set up a brief teaching into listening skills. For every workshop I attended or facilitated, whenever that question was asked, 100% of the hands went up, including my own. 

The charter text in Scripture advising toward good listening might be James 1:19 “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” Additional verses counter to listening further support the need for it: 

  • Proverbs 18:2 “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” 
  • Proverbs 18:13 “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” 

So why is it that, if you’re like most people, we all think we could stand to become better listeners? Add to that the Scriptural admonitions, and it would seem apparent we should simply learn it and do it. Aha! Like many things in life, easier said than done! 

Of the hundreds of people I’ve helped prep for an upcoming interview, none of them ever asked me to help them with their ability to listen. Instead, it was prepping them on what to say and how to say it. Yet an interview, like any other dialogue exchange, consists of talking AND listening. So, in the midst of all the advice we’ve given on what to say in response to an interview question, we thought it only appropriate to share some tips on listening. 

The consultants I worked with for culture workshops were from Senn Delaney, and they outlined 5 Levels of Listening. There are other models, of course, but I found categorizing my listening, or lack thereof, according to these 5 levels helped me differentiate my own behaviors in a way to improve my listening skills. 

Level 1: Non-Listening

The first level of listening is non-listening. Literally: Not. Listening. At. All. Hank Ketcham once said, “Just because I didn’t do what you told me, doesn’t mean I wasn’t listening to you!” This could be due to distractions or not quite hearing the person adequately, but this first level should be easy to get beyond. Yet, how often have I found myself not paying attention to what someone else was trying to tell me? Gulp! Too often! 

Level 2: Listening to Tell Your Own Story

The second level of listening is listening to tell my own story.  For example, you tell me that you just got back from vacation and start telling me about it. Odds are very, very high that I’m not fully listening, but instead I’m mentally recalling my own vacation story to share with you once you stop talking. When an interviewer is sharing some information about him/herself, we might reflexively go to self-prepping for the “Tell me about yourself” question we think will follow. Inevitably, we will not capture all the information that is being shared with us. Beth Rowlett captured this level well with, “If you’re thinking of what to say next, you’re not listening.” 

Level 3: Listening to Agree or Disagree

The third level of listening is listening to agree or disagree. We are absorbing the information, but only with the means by which we can defend our point of view. Pick any topic where there are at least two viable opinions, and that topic can easily be hijacked into the judgment style of listening. For example, in a discussion about assessment tools, you may not have found the Meyers Briggs tool to be that useful, but if the interviewer, for whatever reason, seems to be an advocate and would like to hear your opinion about it, be sure you’re not defaulting to simply listening to agree or disagree. Reach for Level 5 Listening!   

Level 4: Listening for Application

The fourth level of listening is listening for application. What this means is that you’re listening only for the sound bites of what you can actually apply in real time rather than absorbing the whole of what is being said/asked. While on the surface, this level may appear to be sufficient, many nuances may be missed along the way that can better support the application you’d like to make. Let’s say the interviewer starts down the path to ask you a STAR story about conflict resolution, at least with what you think you heard. But the reality is that the interviewer is really digging to see how adaptable you are in high stress situations. You may end up going down a path in your answer that leaves the interviewer thinking you are coming from a different planet! 

Level 5: Listening to Understand

The fifth level of listening is listening to understand. Stephen R. Covey famously said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This level of listening entails actively engaging with the speaker and empathizing with what he /she is saying. You’re not just hearing the words, but you’re actually comprehending the entirety of the message the speaker is trying to convey.   

This fifth level is no small accomplishment! Francois de La Rochefoucauld described it this way. “To listen closely and reply well is the highest perfection we are able to attain in the art of conversation.” How many times have we heard someone described as a wonderful conversationalist when the reality is that he/she is just a very good listener. 

Publilius Syrus (First Century BC, Maxim 914) – – “Let a fool hold his tongue and he will pass for a sage.” 

Let’s be wise when we do have an opportunity to speak by being great listeners! Blessings! 

Dave Sparkman currently serves as the volunteer Crossroads Career board chair and local ministry leader. He is also the founder and managing director of Spark Your Culture, a corporate culture consulting firm. Prior to that he worked at UnitedHealth Group, a Fortune #5 public company, serving in the role of Chief Culture Officer. His unemployment experience came from the implosion of Arthur Andersen, where he served as the West Region Managing Partner, People.

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