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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 experiencing. You are focusing totally on the speaker, listening to their words, their tone of voice and body language and are not so distracted by your own thoughts and feelings. As a good leader/coach you will be using this level of listening where the purpose of gathering information is for the benefit of the speaker rather than you. By listening at this level you can get a real understanding of where the other is ‘coming from’, the other will feel understood, and your own thoughts will not influence the conversation.

Level 4: Listen to help someone else understand

You use everything in the environment while listening to help the speaker understand themselves and what is happening around them. Your antennae are functioning, and intuitions emerge. This involves the listener focusing on the speaker and picking up more than what is being said.

Level 5: Listen without an intent

You are comfortable with longer silences and greater space for the speaker to engage in deeper self-reflection. You will be listening to everything available using intuition, picking up emotions and sensing signals from the speaker´s body language. You can pick the speaker´s energy as well as picking up what they are not saying. You are simply there for the other person to go into deeper reflection.

Pause and reflect: Looking at a regular week, where do you find yourself most often? Where in specific would you like to develop?

Is there a blind spot for listening too much?

The point here is not to just sit back quietly and let the other person talk to themselves. Effective listening also requires you to step in when needed to help the speaker understand. You cannot avoid getting into the issue, and sometimes you need to step in and challenge the person. For example, you may notice that the speaker is talking without an intention, perhaps they are avoiding something, talking in circles, and you need to reflect this back to them, for them to become more self-aware. More about these later!

Listening may not be as simple as it seems, and yet it is a skill everyone can become stronger at with more practice. One practical tip is to start practicing listening to yourself. Taking moments daily to sit in silence and to observe your own thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. You need to take the time aside to do it but even 5 minutes a day is good start that pays off! Listening is such a vital skill for everyone, because if we do not listen, we cannot learn. That is simple.

We were recently in a client meeting and at the end of it the client said that they felt understood. You want that kind of feedback from your colleagues, employees, bosses, clients, spouse and family.


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