Levels of Listening

Understanding the Levels of Listening to Improve Your Listening Skill

Listening occurs at different levels, some more demanding than others. Not all interactions require us to listen at the deepest, most demanding levels. In his book “Listening to Conflict”, Eric Van Slyke, posits six levels of listening. Understanding these levels of listening can help you improve the quality of your listening.

  1. Level I : Passive listening
    This is the lowest level of listening. Here the person being spoken to is aware that the speaker is speaking but actually understands little of what is said. At this level, the listener pays little attention and catches only a few words here and there.
  2. Level II: Responsive listening
    At this level of listening, we give the speaker verbal or nonverbal indicators that we are listening, a head nod or an occasional “uh-huh,” for instance, but we actually aren’t paying much attention, and our comprehension level is still low.
  3. Level III: Selective listening
    A number of us listen selectively, and when we do, we are not paying attention to the entire message. What we do is merely paying attention to certain words or phrases that appeals our interest. We aren’t interested in the speaker’s entire message, only the part of it that concerns us.
  4. Level IV: Attentive listening
    In attentive listening, listeners provide feedback to the speaker by asking for more information or by paraphrasing the speaker’s message to gain further clarification from the speaker. In this level of listening, listeners are more involved, engaging their intellect in the listening process and are able to comprehend more information than at previous levels. However, we are merely listening for our own selfish interests, and are probing for more information because we perceive the information as yielding some profitable value to us, not because we want to benefit the speaker with our understanding.
  5. Level V: Active listening
    Active listening techniques require listeners to engage not only their intellect in listening, but their emotions as well. Listening actively allows listeners the exchange of information—asking the speaker question to gain complete comprehension. They reflect their interpretations of what’s been said back to the speaker so that the speaker feels heard and has a chance to correct any misunderstanding.

    Although active listening usually involves verbal feedback, the feedback can be nonverbal; for example, a smile or a nod of comprehension, or a frown that shows a lack of understanding. If you are observant, active nonverbal listening techniques can be as effective as the more common verbal techniques.
  6. Level VI: Empathic listening
    Empathic listeningOpens in new window is listening at its peak— it is the deepest level of listening. It differs from active listening in an important way. When we listen empathically, we try to step out of our own perspective and view things from that of the speaker’s. This is not only understanding what the person is saying and feeling, but empathizing with it and making effort to communicate this understanding to the speaker. Empathic listening requires listening nonjudgmentally. We cannot empathize with others if we are judging them. Nonjudgmental listening does not mean that we agree with or condone what a person is saying, only that we are willing to step out of ourselves long enough to see how the person views what he or she is saying. Learn more about empathic listeningOpens in new window.

In making efforts to improve their listening skills, people mostly tend to jump to the conclusion that they should listen at the deepest level (empathically) all the time. But listening empathically is not a state of mind, like being happy. It’s not something that “just happens.” It’s a learnable skill that requires active work. Thus to engage in empathic listening the following parameters are required:

  1. Motivation
    Engaging in deep listening comes with determination. We have to be motivated to expend the energy required for deep listening. Knowing the goals accruable to us through deep listening can serve as the ‘why’ to motivate us.
  2. Able to understand
    If we are not able to understand a language or technical information, or if loud noise drowns out the speaker, we may not be able to listen to a message irrespective of the level of our motivation.
  3. Technique
    In addition to basic ability, we need some skill. We need to become good questionnaires, constructing and asking good question – one that reflects back the content of message. This is to go in line with our perceptions and let the speaker know that he or she has been understood. Normally, we do not communicate this way. It’s something we have to practice over time to become natural and autopilot at it.
  4. Commitment
    Listening deeply does not come naturally. Listening deeply is an art – it takes committed effort to practice it consistently and become good at it. Developing the ability to listen deeply is a process that takes time. You probably will not be able to achieve it during the first few trials. However, you have to remain committed to the process, even within a single interaction. During a lengthy interaction, it might be tempting to start thinking about what you want to say instead of listening. You must recommit yourself to your listening task when you find yourself drifting from it.
  5. A listening attitude
    Good listening attitude is a core prerequisite for effective listening at any levels. Even more important is it for deep listening because of the sincere and nonjudgmental attitude it requires.