Six Levels of Listening

  • Article's photo | Credit Coursera | Written by Victor Isaac

Imagine a world where communication flows like a crystal-clear river, where misunderstandings are mere ripples, and opportunities blossom from shared understanding. This world hinges on one crucial skill: mindful listening. But listening isn't just about hearing the words. As Eric Van Slyke's book, "Listening to Conflict," reveals, it's a journey through six distinct levels, each offering a deeper connection to the speaker and the message. By mastering these levels, we unlock the power of communication, transforming our relationships and unlocking hidden potential in every interaction.

Your Guide to the Six Levels of Listening

  1. Level #1: Passive Listening - The Daydreamer

    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.

    Imagine your coworker droning on about their weekend while you check your phone. You catch occasional phrases like "delicious barbeque" and "hilarious movie," but your mind is elsewhere. This is passive listening — barely acknowledging the speaker without truly absorbing their message.

  2. Level #2: Responsive Listening - The Head Nodder

    A client presents their marketing strategy. You offer polite nods and murmurs of "uh-huh," but your internal monologue is already crafting your next point. This is responsive listening – you acknowledge the speaker, but true comprehension remains elusive.

    While responsive listening introduces indicators of engagement, such as nods or occasional verbal affirmations, there's still a gap in true attention. To enhance this level, practice mindfulness by consciously redirecting stray thoughts and actively maintaining focus on the speaker.

  3. Level #3: Selective Listening - The Buzzword Hunter

    A student sits in class zoning out as the professor lectures on advanced thermodynamics. They perk up only when keywords like "engine efficiency" and "performance improvement" catch their attention. This is selective listening — focusing only on information that directly interests them and ignoring the broader context.

    Selective listening involves honing in on specific words or phrases that capture interest. This level is marked by a self-centric approach, focusing only on elements relevant to the listener. To broaden this perspective, consciously strive to expand your interest to encompass the entirety of the speaker's message.

  4. Level #4: Attentive Listening - The Questioner

    A friend confides in you about their relationship struggles. You ask insightful questions, paraphrase their feelings, and seek clarification. This is attentive listening – you engage your intellect, actively seeking understanding beyond the surface.

    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, the motivation often lies in personal gain.

    To elevate this level, cultivate a genuine curiosity about the speaker's perspective, aiming to understand for the sake of mutual benefit rather than individual advantage.

  5. Level #5: Active Listening - The Mirror

    A therapist leans in with empathetic eye contact as their client pours out their anxieties. They reflect emotions like "It sounds like you're feeling overwhelmed," validate their concerns, and offer gentle guidance. This is active listening – not just understanding the content, but truly connecting with the speaker's feelings and emotions.

    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 #6: Empathic Listening - The Mind Reader

    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. Imagine stepping into your child's shoes as they recount a difficult experience at school. You feel their hurt, understand their perspective, and communicate this understanding. This is empathic listening – you transcend your own experience and truly see the world through their eyes.

    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.

    Empathic listening requires:

    • Motivation: Deep listening takes effort. Recognizing the positive outcomes – stronger relationships, reduced conflict, and deeper understanding — fuels your motivation.
    • Ability: Ensure you can understand the speaker's language and context. Eliminate distractions like loud noise that hinder comprehension.
    • Technique: Master the art of open-ended questions that reflect back the message and prompt further sharing. This goes beyond passive "tell me more" to active inquiries like "What makes you feel that way?" or "Can you walk me through your thought process?"
    • Commitment: Deep listening is a skill, not a one-time act. Be patient with yourself and the speaker, recommit to focusing when your mind wanders, and practice consistently.
    • Attitude: Approach every interaction with genuine curiosity and non-judgment. Put your own biases aside and be open to experiencing the world from the speaker's perspective.
  7. In essence, each level of listening serves as a building block, with empathic listening as the apex. The journey to mastery involves continuous self-awareness, intentional practice, and a commitment to fostering meaningful connections through the art of listening.

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