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How well you listen can be directly tied to success in leadership (and life really). A leader who barks at everyone, interrupts constantly, and accepts zero feedback is rarely seen as an effective leader.

Instead, a leader who truly takes the time to listen, asks pointed questions, hears and acts on employee’s concerns, and who clearly demonstrates empathy is usually both a better-liked and more effective leader.

There are 5 levels of listening that coaches use to determine how engaged someone is. Being aware of them will help you improve your communication skills.

Why is listening important?

Have you ever heard the long-term spouse joke about ‘selective listening’ or ‘selective hearing’? Even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once joked that in every long marriage it helps to be “a little deaf.” 

This may be true at home, but in the workplace it can be incredibly frustrating when we work with managers or colleagues who we can tell simply aren’t listening to what we have to say.

Listening is such an important part of how we engage with others, and how we communicate. We know intrinsically that there are different levels of listening. That is why we come alive when we know that someone is truly listening to us, and we really feel heard. 

Conversely we tend to shut down when we know that someone is half-listening and barely paying attention. 

In the coaching sense, being able to listen deeply is a crucial communication skill for connecting with employees and establishing relationships. 

So what are the different levels of listening that are out there, and what do they look like day to day?

What are the different levels of listening?

There are five different levels of listening, and each one takes a different level of skill and effort.

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Ignoring Listening

Speaking to a listener who’s ignoring feels like you’re talking to a wall. This is when someone is outright either not even acknowledging that you’re speaking, or you can tell that they hear you but they are not engaging or not responding. If you’ve ever had to call someone’s name repeatedly before they pay attention, they were likely ignoring you.

Pretending Listening

This could almost be called ‘presentation listening’ since it is often what happens when we’re pretending to listen to a speaker but we’re not really taking in what they have to say. We may be able to fake it with smiles and nods until they ask a direct question, and we’re caught like Homer Simpson with his fake glasses meant for falling asleep in court. 

Selective Listening

This is the Ruth Bader Ginsburg approach to marriage as mentioned above, and can often be common with couples or even close friends and family. Effectively we ‘hear what we want to hear,’ and we don’t really pay too much attention to the rest. 

A listener’s body language might be a great indication of whether or not they are practising selective listening. If they keep trying to push you to the end, or demanding to know the point, they’re not listening to the entire message. This can quickly lead to miscommunication, or even misunderstanding, because they’re missing the greater point of what you have to say.

Attentive Listening

Attentive listening denotes a high level of engagement. A listener is giving you their time, attention, and their focus, and they are truly listening to what you have to say. They are literally paying attention, and they are taking in the message without losing focus or getting distracted. Their body language should suggest that they are highly engaged in the conversation.

Most of us are attentive listeners on our best days, and that is admirable. However, the challenge is that attentive listeners hear the world through their own lens. If you’re telling an attentive listener a difficult story, or speaking about something vulnerable, they will often come back with a personal anecdote or speak about how it impacts them.

Attentive listeners are trying their best to hear the other person, but they are ultimately thinking about themselves just as much (if not more) than they are thinking about you. To break out of that mold takes an extra level of attention, focus, and dedication. 

Empathic Listening

An empathic listener is giving you their full time, attention, and focus because they are trying to see and hear the world through your eyes and ears. They are not only listening attentively, but they are thinking the entire time about how what you say has impacted you, not them. 

Empathic listening is not easy! It takes time and attention to be that involved in a conversation, and you give your entire heart and mind over to the process. 

This is level of listening required if you’re going to be a coach, a crucial part of leadership.

How to improve your listening skills?

how to improve your listening skills graphic

There are some naturally good listeners, but it is possible to become a better listener, and practice one’s listening skills. 

Next time you listen closely, focus on what the other person is telling you and where they are coming from.

Before you rush to speak or interject, put yourself in their shoes. Focus on the person’s body language, and stay tuned for both their verbal cues and their nonverbal cues such as they’re breathing, pauses, eye contact or movement, and hand gestures. If a person is in distress, their body language may say as much as their words do. 

Also remember that your body language and nonverbal cues as a listener says a lot about your listening skills, and whether you are practising effective listening. 

Keep your eyes focused on the other person, your shoulders aimed towards them, and your hands as calm and relaxed as possible. This shows the speaker that you are giving them all of your focus and attention. 

A few last words for those still Listening

Effective listening can help make you a better partner, relative, friend, and colleague.

People who need an ear will be glad to come to you knowing that you’re paying attention, and can help see the world through their eyes. Even better, they’ll be more open to listening to you when you need an ear in return.

Further resources:

Finn Bartram
By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.