The three-level playback: Episode 1 of The LeaderLab

How great leaders can improve their listening skills.

3-minute read

Mediocre leaders often suffer from a disease of the mouth: they talk more than they listen. Exceptional leaders, on the other hand, understand that their rhetoric is meaningless unless they’re in sync with their team. To that end, one of the most effective skills leaders can develop is deep listening.

In the official launch of the new LifeLabs Learning podcast, The LeaderLab, host Vanessa Tanicien and leadership facilitator Robleh Kirce explore how great leaders can improve their listening skills to help their people become more resilient.

The good news is that listening is a low-cost activity with a giant return on investment. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” 

Listening well increases:  

  • Alignment and understanding  
  • Connection and collaboration
  • Trust and rapport   

The bad news is that when it comes to listening, the odds are stacked against us. 

The challenge of listening

Structurally, our brains are designed to process thoughts at a much faster rate than speech. This gap, which scholars call speech-thought differential, is why our minds easily wander during conversations. 

Making matters worse, we’re often blind to our own limitations: studies show that most people think they’re better listeners than the average person. Our own egos also get in the way of effective listening by leading us to assume that we know more than we do. By failing to empty the proverbial cup, we end up listening to be understood rather than to understand.    

Finally, modern environments are riddled with so much distraction and stimulation that it’s a miracle any listening gets done. Studies show, for example, that the mere presence of a smartphone, even when turned off, reduces people's motivation to communicate meaningfully with one another, increasing disinterest and disconnection.       

How to listen

In The LeaderLab, Robleh introduces us to a tool we teach at LifeLabs Learning called the Three-Level (3L) Playback. The basic idea is that you demonstrate your listening and provide support by identifying different frequencies in the conversation: 

  1. Content: What are they saying? 
  2. Emotion: What are they feeling? 
  3. Need: What do they need?  

For example, your co-worker tells you: “If I see another Zoom meeting on my calendar, I’ll throw my computer out the window.” A playback could be: “It sounds like you’re exhausted by virtual meetings. Do you need more 1-1 time? Or is it something else?”  

Another example, if your colleague says: “I wish our meetings were better. They never seem to go anywhere.” A playback could be: “It sounds like you feel our meetings are inefficient. Seems like you’re wondering how we can make more progress. Is that right?”    

Notice how in the above examples the order of the communication frequencies switched up (no need to keep it linear). Moreover, it’s not always necessary for the listener to identify all three levels. Sometimes content or feelings alone will do the trick. Finally, each of the examples above ended with a question. Doing so allows the speaker to agree or amplify their message.  

The power and beauty of the 3L Playback is that it shifts attention from self-centeredness in conversations (“What am I going to say” / “How am I going to respond?”) and places it squarely on the other, being mindful of both what is and isn’t being articulated. 

In times like these, when so many of us are struggling to find the right thing to say, it’s our ears and not our mouths that we need to first open.  

Listen to The LeaderLab on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.