The 5 levels of listening

“Deep listening impacts beyond words.”


Imagine you are in one of those meetings where everyone talks on top of another, repeating the same points over and over again, and you can feel the frustration level up by your ineffectiveness as a team to get nowhere. You notice that everyone is just trying to get their point across and yearning to feel understood. Sounds too familiar. David Clutterbuck would say you are all listening to argue or refute, which is the first level of listening.


It is easy to say that we would all benefit from listening on deeper levels. Thus, the goal here is to give you ideas on how to get from a distracted listener to a deep and impactful listener, using the 5 levels of listening introduced by David Clutterbuck.


This is such an important topic because communication is 50% speaking and 50% listening, and we have mostly been taught how to speak. This is not only evident in the way we celebrate great speakers, but how often have you heard someone being acknowledged for their effective listening skills? Some of the world´s best listeners, awarded by the International Listening Association, are some of the world´s greatest speakers and influencers, such as Oprah Winfrey, President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, to name but a few. It shouldn´t come as a surprise that what makes these individuals also such charismatic speakers is their ability to listen.


What is listening?

Listening is not only the act of being silent and hearing what the other person has to say, but also includes how we receive, accept and respond to what we hear. It is an attempt to get on the same page with another person, giving them your full attention and shutting up the voices of your own thinking.


What makes listening so hard?

Listening is hard: it takes a lot of mental energy and focus to really listen to someone and not just appear to be listening. What makes it difficult is that most of us have hard time silencing our minds, even if there is no one around. Have you tried meditating? We tend to think faster than people speak and so our mind often wanders. You have probably noticed that!

It is funny, how many times I have walked into a meeting or a lecture and thought, "Now I can take it easy, because I only have to listen." We mistake listening as easy because it looks passive and instinctive, but it requires intense concentration. The good news is that anyone can learn to become a better listener.


How to become better?

To learn to listen what people are and are not saying and to fully understand what is being communicated, you can use these 5 levels of listening as a starting point:

Level 1: Listen to argue or refute

You hear the speaker's words and may be attentive, but the words get interpreted through your own lens. Your focus is on yourself and your own thoughts rather than the speaker. As the other is speaking, you interpret what you hear in terms of what it means to you, and in your mind, you are preparing to answer based on what you know is right!

In your mind you are thinking “How can I show them where they are wrong?”. You believe you have superior knowledge or understanding, and consequently you fail to understand the complexity of the issue.


Level 2: Listen to respond

You still interpret the speaker´s words through your own lens. This is a normal everyday conversation where the listener listens to gather information to help them form opinions and make decisions. This is what we are used to in most cases.

In your mind you are thinking what to say next, what to share or ask. You direct the conversation, even if you believe you are being non-directive.


Level 3: Listen to understand

You are stepping in the speakers' shoes, intently focusing on what the other has to say and what they are