The five levels of listening

Paul Butler, Newleaf Training and Development. Submitted photo

Very few employees have been trained how to listen. Most people don’t listen — they’re really just preparing their response. We have two ears and one mouth and my observation has been that effective people listen twice as much as they speak.

I believe many problems we see in the workplace come down to a lack of effective listening.

There are essentially five levels of listening — pretending, selective, defensive, attentive and empathic. Let’s unpack each of these to ensure we understand what each one looks like and feels like.

When someone pretends to listen, the person seems to be listening but you can tell he or she isn’t. Technology seems to be adding to the problem. Have you ever been in a conversation with a colleague, vendor or customer and you can just tell they’re not listening? I’d encourage you to have the courage to ask if they want to reschedule the conversation or to take a moment since they seem so distracted.

Selective listening can be very selfish listening — it’s a level of listening focused on someone’s personal agenda. When a leader practices selective listening, it can come across as very controlling.

Defensive listening is very destructive. It’s higher than selective listening because the listener is at least listening to the whole point but they’re listening with the intent to deflect, deny or defend their position. The conversation can be very frustrating, because the speaker doesn’t feel like the issue is being resolved and the listener doesn’t seem to want to take any responsibility or help get to the root of the issue.

Attentive listening (sometimes referred to as ‘active listening’) should be our normal mode of operation as listeners. When attentively listening, we need to allow others to finish their sentences — if necessary, repeat back your understanding of the situation to the speaker. You can tell when someone is attentively listening — in person, you’ll see it in their eye contact; they’ll maybe lean-in; you’ll see them nodding their heads and maybe making notes of what you’ve just said. Even over the phone, you can sense when someone is attentively listening.

A lot of people over-complicate empathic listening. At Newleaf Training and Development, we’ve coined a phrase that seems to resonate with people  we coach and train that goes like this — “When there’s high emotion involved, you should employ empathic listening.” We call it the 3 E’s: Emotion … employ … empathic.

So, what really is empathic listening? Let’s start with what it isn’t. Empathic listening is not trying to fix, analyze or figure out the other person — you’re not playing judge and jury as to who was right and who was wrong. Empathic listening is trying to stand in the shoes of the other person. Your goal is to recognize the way the person is feeling and, in so doing, you’re helping the colleague, vendor or customer calm down.

Keep it simple — Your goal is to help the person calm down without saying, “Calm down.” Phrases such as “Tell me more” or “I can see/hear you’re very frustrated or upset about this” will help get to the goal.

When they’ve calmed down, one of two things is likely to happen — they’re likely to say something like, “Thanks ever so much for listening to me — I’m not sure whether you can help, but thanks anyway.” This builds the relationship.

A word of warning, though: If this is a colleague and they’re gossiping or venting about another colleague, have the courage and consideration to suggest this isn’t helpful and maybe they should speak directly to the other person about their frustrations and concerns. Gossip can be like a toxic poison that can easily spread across teams and organizations.

The second potential outcome is the person may ask your advice because you understand them and the situation — they’re likely to say something like, “Based on your experience, what advice would you give me?”

I’m no psychologist; I’m a recovering accountant. But, it’s very effective to truly listen to others. Some people have said it takes too much time to listen to others.

My response is that attentively or empathically listening to people is the fastest form of human communication. When we only pretend to listen, selectively listen or defensively listen, all sorts of misunderstanding, confusion and conflict can arise. Who has time and energy for that?

Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia ( The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Signal. For questions or comments, email Butler at [email protected].

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