Five levels of listening



I just read this on a business website and wanted to share the text rather than provide a link to it. These points seem to me important enough to dedicate space to them, and I hope everyone will read them.

Most people who think they are good listeners underperform. There is some research that suggests they do so by as much as 60%. This overconfidence impedes their success as it prevents them from truly understanding the motivation of the other side.Nothing puts a relationship in jeopardy faster than poor listening. Husband, wife, son, daughter, boss or subordinate, people do not take long to estimate your commitment to listening, especially when 93% of communication is wrapped up in physical syntax and delivery. Given this percentage, it is not easy to convince someone else that you are listening if in fact you are not.

So why do most underperform? Because most fail to recognize that there are different levels to listening.

> Listening For The Gist

The first level is intermittent listening; that is to say listening long enough to get the gist of what the other side is saying before we refocus on our internal voice which is formulating a reaction from our world view. We may not articulate this reaction but internally we are in a dialogue with ourselves about how what is being said does not line up with our logic.

> Listening To Rebut

At the next level, we listen to rebut. This is where we listen long enough to understand the incoming message until it hits a trigger. The trigger is something in the statement or phrase with which we can argue or rebut. Once heard, we just wait for the other side to shut up long enough so we can tell them how their position is faulty and by extension, how much smarter we are. These enthusiastic replies undermine communication and the relationship. Interjecting with a quick response is a clear indication that we are not listening. At these levels we are focusing on our agenda at the expense of theirs.

>Listening for Logic

At the third level, using inference, we listen for the internal logic of what is being said. If this is their worldview, their conclusion or their judgement, why does it make sense to them?

> Listening for Emotion

At the fourth level we listen for any emotions and or identity issues that may be driving their argument. These emotions or issues may (unlikely) or may not (most assuredly) make sense to us but at this level we recognize their significance to the other side as they talk about what is important to them.

> Listening for Their Point of View

One level beyond that is where we listen for what their argument, phrase, or statement says about who they are in world. What does it symbolize or represent to them? This is where we filter their emotion and logic through a prism of empathy. It is where we should be as negotiators. Getting beyond the cursory level of understanding to a deeper appreciation of their world view. If we do not understand their world view, we do not really understand them. If we do not understand them, we will never influence them. It it is difficult to maintain this level of listening every waking moment of everyday but we need to be ready and willing to get here when the situation dictates.


This Harvard Business Review article talks about the opposite: false listening, faked empathy.

A fundamental social skill of emotional intelligence is being an effective listener. Being attuned to the spoken and unspoken [boldface added by me] concerns of others demonstrates an openness to their views, a willingness to engage ideas different from ours, and honors the courage of others to express divergent perspectives. Most leaders I’ve worked with claim to want pushback, believe they listen to dissenting ideas, and are willing to have their minds changed when stronger beliefs and facts are presented. But many would also admit, if they were being honest, that letting go of being right is painful, and relinquishing their views to those of others feels like a loss of control and influence.

The main reason I wanted to broach the topic of listening is that I see how important it is to the healthy development of this community.


My first reaction to seeing the same article myself a week ago probably isn’t what most people would suspect. I’ve long been schooled at the Four Levels of Listening via Theory U / MIT / Prof. Otto Scharmer. For example:

So hearing about the “five” proposed in the article, my mind went to the movie Spinal Tap where they had amplifiers that could “go to 11”.

Joking aside, listening is critical. But the one key component I found missing from the five outlined here is the fourth in Theory U/u.lab speak: generative and co-creative listening. More than just an empathetic viewpoint of listening from another’s point of view, that co-creative listening – which I’ve found immensely valuable in practice – comes from communities that have found a way to “see themselves” as parts of a broader system and to speak to and listen from the perspective of that holistic system. And one that challenges and changes the listener with a new identity.


This is great, @greg . Thank you for posting.

The HBR article goes into more depth—and is better written—taking to task leaders who appear to listen but don’t. It ends in this surprising way:

Our ability to express emotional intelligence is sometimes impaired by unacknowledged, unhealthy, emotional needs. If you want to genuinely employ effective emotional intelligence skills, pay attention to the unaddressed scars and voids lurking beneath the surface of your inner emotional landscape. Tend to those honestly and carefully, and you’ll better be able to maintain credibility and strong relationships with others.

Every once in a while as I am reading on the forum, I come across something that seems to me the result of unacknowledged needs. If there is any good reason for not owning a smartphone, it is impulsivity. Smartphones give users the ability to meet such needs by allowing them to comment or post without forethought—which of course reinforces impulsivity. (More musings about this danger can be found on @PatMc’s blog.)

What you said here seems especially significant:

I would love to hear more about holistic systems. As you know, one of the challenges of the forum is fitting into and expressing the plans of the founders. There is more communication between the admins and the founders, so I expect we will see some changes soon. Would like to get your thoughts about holistic systems in general.

I had corresponded with the admins about resilient communities, a concept I found on this site. Here’s a screenshot: