Most of us have heard about the difference between active listening and passive listening, but did you know that it’s even more nuanced than that? As both a consultant and a coach, I was taught the three levels of listening.
It might sound a bit more complicated, but in reality having three distinctions in mind can help to inform us on exactly how we’re listening. Having three clear levels can also empower us to more deliberately choose which level we want to use. This is important because science tells us that our brain defaults to making assumptions and listening at a superficial level.
Do you or someone you know struggle with paying attention and actively listening? Maybe the conversation quickly becomes “me” focused or centered on problem-solving. Maybe all you need to do is listen a bit differently.
The Three Levels of Listening Listening can mean a number of things beyond noticing what someone else is saying. It can mean hearing, understanding, empathizing, even supporting. “Listen” comes from an Old English word meaning “to pay attention to.” It’s a beautiful entry point into the three levels of listening, because what we really need to do is ask: what is it we’re paying attention to?
Listening is a cornerstone of friendships, business partnerships, romantic relationships, and daily life in general. Because it’s something we’ve grown up doing and lived with all our lives, it’s not often examined. Let’s examine it here.
Image by Jason R. Waller
Level 1 Listening: Internally Focused Level 1 is what we might call “passive listening.” In Level 1, imagine that a flashlight is pointed right back at ourselves. The other person is speaking, but we’re paying attention to what’s going on in our own mind. When the other person speaks, we might be thinking about what to say next or how to disprove their points. We might be preparing our next statement so that we sound smart or contribute something valuable. Or we might just be distracted and disinterested, daydreaming about something else.
This is the level of listening where we make judgments. Note that making judgments doesn’t mean “bad.” There are plenty of times when we need to make judgments! If we are in the doctor’s office, it would be a good idea to think about what the doctor is saying and the impact of her words on us. When we’re buying a house, Level 1 is great.
But if we are talking to a friend who’s sharing about their tough day, judgment has no place. If we’re trading feedback with a colleague at work, Level 1 doesn’t work. Level 1 robs us of the opportunity to understand someone’s perspective and connect, even in disagreement.
Level 2 Listening: Externally Focused In Level 2, imagine that a spotlight is on the person talking. You, as the person holding the light, are deeply interested in seeing and understanding this other person. This is listening to understand and connect. We turn off our internal voice and pay attention to the other person, what they’re saying and what they mean. Any agenda we have we let go of.
Turning the light away from ourselves and onto the other person unlocks our ability to be empathetic. Even if the other person says something we don’t agree with, at Level 2 that doesn’t get in the way of our curiosity. We’re fascinated and interested in the other person, digging deeper into what they’re saying. We ask more questions than we do make statements.
Level 1 to 2 Challenge In your next meaningful conversation, I challenge you to ask yourself and notice: what am I paying attention to? Am I focused on me, maybe thinking about what to say next, or am I distracted by another topic? Or am I focused on them and interested in understanding what they’re saying? Notice where your light is pointed, and see what happens in the conversation and relationship by pointing it at them.
Level 3 Listening: Globally Focused If Level 1 is “light on me” and Level 2 is “light on them,” Level 3 is like turning on the light in the room. Level 3 is about intuition and instinct, building off of Level 2 and even adding back in some of what you notice at Level 1. Level 3 is about paying attention not just to what is being said, but also to how it is being said, what you’re imagining and feeling as they say it, and what the environment is telling you.
This level of listening is a skill that takes time and practice. Intuition is a fundamental part of Level 3, but it goes beyond just reading body language and listening to tone. At Level 3, you might have a gut feeling that something important isn’t being said — and you might point-blank ask “What’s not being said here?” You might have a gut feeling that what someone’s saying is a lot more important than they’re letting on. At Level 3, you might say “I get the sense that this has a lot of meaning to you — what’s really important about it?”
This level of listening isn’t about making predictions or being right, it’s about noticing what your intuition tells you and doubling down on curiosity. It’s about supporting and empowering the other person.
Level 2 to 3 Challenge The next time you’re really at Level 2 listening, with your attention squarely focused on what the other person is saying, try leaning into your intuition and curiosity. Notice what’s not being said or what your gut tells you and gently ask if there’s anything there. Maybe you had an image flash through your mind or a sensation in your body. Share your intuition, not to be right or wrong, but to see what comes up for the other person.
In Summary The three levels of listening offer a really amazing way to check in and ask yourself “what is it that I’m paying attention to right now?” Level 1 is self-focused and often includes judgment. Level 2 is other-focused and built on understanding. Level 3 is global, leveraging intuition to empower and support others in a rich, meaningful way.
Level 3 isn’t better than Level 1 or 2, it’s just different. Each level has a time and a place, but often we are so used to being at Level 1 that just a little practice at Level 2 or even Level 3 can be meaningful in our relationships.
Experiment with first just noticing when you’re at. If at Level 1, ask yourself if Level 2 would serve the conversation better. In your friendships and partnerships, get some practice with turning the light away from yourself and onto the other person. Good luck on your journey.
Originally published in mind cafe