- Level 1 is when your awareness is on yourself – your thoughts, your judgements, your feelings.
- Level 2 is when you’re focused on someone else – not just on what they’re saying, but on their tone of voice, body language, underlying intentions and emotions.
- Level 3 is when your awareness encompasses not just you and the other person but the total environment you find yourselves in – “as though you were surrounded by a force field that contains you, the client, and an environment of information” (Co-Active Coaching, Kimsey-House et. al.)
But I didn’t learn these three levels of listening as a coach – I learned them as a jazz musician, before I became a coach.
So I thought it might be fun to look at how these three levels of listening show up in coaching and in jazz.
Level 1: “It’s all about me”
To become a proficient jazz musician requires practice, and the best way to practice is to be firmly rooted in Level 1 listening.
You’re under no obligation to anyone else, you can experiment as you see fit – because it’s all about you.
But God help you if you show up on the bandstand in Level 1.
A horn player or a singer may be able to get away with it for a while – so long as the rhythm section is firmly rooted in Levels 2 and 3. But if the band is to sound like a band, as opposed to a bunch of individuals all doing their own thing, everyone needs to get out of Level 1 and start listening at levels 2 and 3.
Only when all members of the band are listening at levels 2 and 3 does the music become more than the sum of its parts and really take off.
If everyone is listening at level 1 it may be a tour de force demonstration of technical facility – but as The Lips in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments says, it’s “tosser music” – musical masturbation. It may be stimulating for the players, but it doesn’t offer much of anything to anyone else (except, maybe, musical voyeurs).
Level 2: “It’s all about the interplay”
One of the most difficult skills to develop as a jazz musician is not level 2 listening per se (although that’s not necessarily easy) but level 2 listening while playing your instrument.
The same can be said for coaches. It’s one thing to be able to listen with empathy and understanding – quite another to do so when you know you have to respond in a timely, professional manner.
The temptation is to listen with a view to responding – to still be half in Level 1, even while doing your best to be in Level 2.
The inexperienced jazz musician suffers the same fate. He gets so caught up in his solo that he stops listening to the band, which ironically denies him one of the greatest resources from which to draw for inspiration – the music being created right then and there by his fellow musicians.
The thought of being front and center stage with nothing to say is so terrifying that he turns back on himself, drawing on old or pre-rehearsed motifs, instead of being with whatever arises in the moment.
Similarly, the fear of having nothing interesting or useful to say in response to a client leads the inexperienced coach to be constantly thinking ‘What am I going to say next?’ rather than simply being with the client.
It takes a significant degree of self-trust to be able to listen at level 2, on the bandstand or in a coaching session. You have to know, in your innermost being, that if you let go and really listen, you will be more rather than less effective.
You have to trust your native impulses, and know that inspiration is indiscriminate with respect to effort. It’s as likely to strike when you’re trying really hard, as when you’re not trying at all.
Level 3: “It’s all about transcendence”
Listen to Bill Evans’ album ‘Live at the Village Vanguard’ and you’ll hear the clinking of glasses and various other sounds emitted by audience members and bar staff at the club where it was recorded. But what is remarkable about these sounds is how little they disrupt the music. In fact, you could say they add to the music, because in some way they are a part of the music.
How is this possible?
Because the musicians are so adept at listening at Level 3 they are able to incorporate environmental sounds into the music they’re making. This possibility is unique to jazz and other improvisatory forms (like stand-up comedy) and is the reason why a truly great live jazz performance seems to transcend time and space. It is immediacy made manifest in sound.
As Michael Ondaatje puts it, in his fictionalized account of Buddy Bolden, the jazz cornettist who never recorded a note:
It is good you never heard him play on recordings. If you never heard him play some place where the weather for instance could change the next series of notes – then you should never have heard him at all.
Coaching is, like jazz, an improvisatory art, so when a coach listens at Level 3 everything is grist for the mill. Things that go unnoticed or seem irrelevant from a Level 1 or 2 perspective take on new meaning at Level 3 and become incorporated in to the coaching. As a result, new insights emerge, new energies are released, and transformation becomes possible.
It’s all about what’s possible
In his book Musicking: the meanings of performing and listening, Christopher Small claims music’s power derives from its ability to represent relationships in sonic form. It should come as no surprise, then, that what is true of listening in musical contexts is equally true of listening in interpersonal contexts, including coaching.
Just as a really great musical performance has the capacity to move a person to tears, so a really great coaching session has the capacity to move a person to tears.
And what are those tears about?
In both instances, I believe, they are about what’s possible. What’s possible for us as individuals, and what’s possible for us collectively, as human beings in relationship with one another, and with our world.
If you would like to explore what’s possible for you, through personalized, one-on-one coaching that includes Level 3 listening, it would be my pleasure to serve you.