a blue banner with "Three Levels of Listening" in white text accompanied by three bubbles that have one person talking, a person asking another person a question, and two people having a conversation

by Bridgette Ralph | 2 Minute Read

The three levels of listening describe the distinct levels of engagement in conversation. It was formulated by the Co-Active Training Institute to help improve communication within our teams and with our clients. Through their insightful and effective blog post, they share what the three levels of listening are:an illustration of an ear accompanied by three different bars labeled 1, 2, and 3

  1. Level One listening is completely self-focused and distracted.
  2. Level Two listening is focused and attentive to the other person.
  3. Level Three listening is inquisitive and understanding.

To help develop trusting relationships and understand the needs of the person we are communicating with, we need to learn how to listen with an empathetic ear. However, most people do not understand how to do so. Luckily, learning about the three levels of listening can help develop that skill. This blog takes a deep dive into these levels and provides examples of each. As you read, think about what kind of listener you are.

Level One: Listen to Speak

an illustration of a person talkingLevel one listening is when a person in a conversation focuses on how the conversation affects themselves. They do not want to learn more about the other person or the topic at hand.

In level one listening, someone only talks about themself. They do not ask the other person questions, and they think about what they are going to say while the other person is talking. Therefore, they are distracted and are more interested in what they have to say— not what is being shared with them.

For example...

  • Colleague: I am so exhausted.
  • Me: Me too. I couldn’t sleep last night at all.
  • Colleague: Me neither. I feel so stressed.
  • Me: Me too!
  • Colleague: Work is crazy right now.
  • Me: My work is crazy too. Did I tell you what happened the other day?

In this example of level one listening, both people are only talking about themselves. Neither one is concerned with the other. Without any education on how to effectively communicate, many people stay in this zone their entire life, and their personal and work relationships suffer.

Level Two: Listen to Hear

two illustrations of people with one person asking a questionLevel two listening is more active than level one, as we give feedback to the speaker based on what we hear from them. Level two listening involves asking questions related to the topic and showing a deeper engagement with the speaker.

When engaged in Level Two listening, the listener will be attentive. They will try not to think of how what they are hearing relates to them, but instead choose to ask a follow-up question. They value what the speaker is saying.

For example…

  • Colleague: I am so exhausted.
  • Me: Me too. I could not sleep last night. Why do you think you are so tired?
  • Colleague: I was thinking about work. I couldn’t sleep either.
  • Me: Maybe work kept me awake too.
  • Colleague: I can’t wait for this project to be finished.
  • Me: Did they move up the deadline?

If this was level one listening, the listener would have brought the focus back to themselves every time, but instead, they asked a couple of follow-up questions and gathered more information. They shared common ground and strengthened the relationship.

Level Three: Listen to Understand

two illustrations of people with one person talking and another responding with a questionLevel three is for deeper listening— listening for what they are not saying or for the meaning behind what they are saying. Listen to understand - not just to remember what was said. Ask more than one clarifying question and keep the conversation focused on them, especially if they have an issue on their mind.

With level three listening, you make your companion feel like they matter and what they are going through is significant. Richer relationships are forged when level three listening is used consistently.

For example…

  • Colleague: I am so exhausted.
  • Me: I’m sorry to hear that. How was your sleep last night?
  • Colleague: It’s been difficult. I’ve been stressed.
  • Me: What do you think is the cause of your stress at night?
  • Colleague: Work.
  • Me: Do you want to talk about it?

Level three listening brings us to the aha moment because the person did not bring the focus back to themselves at all. They kept the focus on their colleague. This approach created an opportunity for the colleague to illuminate an issue related to work. Asking clarifying questions unraveled the mystery of what was troubling the colleague. Now, they will see their colleague as a compassionate person who didn’t judge them for not being energetic and ready to seize the day. Plus, by showing concern, we will build a stronger relationship with that team member.

Give It a Go

an illustration of an ear accompanied by a text bubbleNext time you are with friends or coworkers, practice these steps. If you are chatting casually for a bit, use level one. Don’t make it too serious. After everyone is settling down and getting comfortable with each other, move into level two. Ask creative questions. Go on a fact-finding mission. And then, as everyone relaxes, pay attention. Listen for clues that someone might want to go a bit deeper on a certain topic. When this happens, zone in and ask thoughtful questions. Stay focused on the matter at hand. If you have played your cards right, you will have forged stronger bonds with at least one of your companions. You might even make a new friend.

Which three levels of listening have you experienced? Share your conversations in the comments!

Happy Listening!