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For the last 30 years the Co-Active Training Institute (CTI) has been offering the gold-standard in coach training and leadership development for individuals and organizations. Now we are creating a new language of leadership. Let's do this together. 

The Three Levels of Listening


Human beings aren't solitary creatures. We thrive on our connections with one another, and those connections are what communications about. It's through effective listening and effective communication that everything we achieve gets done, from opening a restaurant to flying to the moon to raising children. But while talking is easy, without the ability to listen keenly, communication goes nowhere.

Before coaching, if I’m honest, utilizing different levels of listening wasn’t something I was very good at. I generally had plenty to say for myself, and a belief that everyone else was bound to be interested in my wisdom. This doesn’t work when you’re coaching because coaching uses unique listening techniques. That is why I’ve had to learn some lessons about the fundamentals of good listening. But the thing that’s struck me most of all is that it’s incredible what you can hear when you really listen.

What Are The Three Levels of Listening?

There are different stages of listening. In Co-Active Coaching, we talk about three levels of listening. What distinguishes them is where you focus as you listen to the person that you’re with.

Level One Listening 

Level One Listening is listening primarily to yourself, or your own thoughts or agenda. You could be focusing on any number of things. Maybe you’re thinking what to say next in the conversation, and so only half-hearing what the other person’s saying. Maybe you’re wondering what to have for lunch, or if you left the gas on. The key thing is that in Level One listening there is selective listening, so you’re not really fully hearing the other person.

Level Two Listening

In Level Two listening you are intensely focused on what the other person is saying. They have your undivided attention and nothing's distracting you. Thoughts about the past or the future don't intrude. Even your own ideas don't get in the way of you hearing the other person. This is also called attentive listening.

Level Three Listening

Level Three listening is also completely directed towards the other person, but it has a wider focus: empathetic listening. You hear more than just the words they're saying. You pick up on all sorts of other things – body language, the inflections and tone of their voice, their pauses and hesitations. It's like you can hear sound effects in their mind – the clink of a penny dropping, the thud as they hit a wall. You can feel them straining to avoid something or pulling towards something – and you have a sense of what that might be.

Why Is Listening Important in Leadership?

Listening is crucial in leadership for several reasons:

Understanding and Empathy: Listening allows leaders to understand the perspectives, concerns, and needs of their team members. It fosters empathy, helping leaders connect with their team on a personal level.

Building Trust: When leaders actively listen to their team members, it builds trust. Team members feel valued and respected, and trust is essential for a positive and productive work environment.

Effective Communication: Good leaders need to communicate effectively. Active listening ensures that leaders receive information accurately, reducing the chances of misunderstandings or misinterpretations.

How To Be a Better Listener: Unlocking the Higher Levels of Listening

It's in levels of communication two and three that Co-Active Coaching takes place. This is where you’re an active listener and you really let yourself be on the receiving end of someone else and their agenda.

Here’s a simple experiment you can do to demonstrate the difference between levels of listening.

  • To start practicing your levels of listening, get together with somebody else.
  • Take a moment to think of something you really love – a particular interest or hobby perhaps, or a favorite book or film.
  • Take it in turns to talk about the thing you love – for, say, two minutes. When you’re engaging in the first of the levels of active listening, don’t ignore the person, but don’t let them hook you in either. Think about what you want to say on this subject, or let random thoughts distract you. When you’re talking – and when you’re listening too – notice what that's like.
  • Do it again, but this time, when you’re listening, really focus. Be fascinated. Be alert to anything that makes you think “Wow!” or want to know more, however small or large. This is important when polishing the different levels of listening in communication skills.
  • Do it a third time. When you’re listening this time, try to be aware of what this feels like to the other person. Feel their energy. Notice the glint in their eye, the animation in their body language. Open up all your senses and be receptive to what the other person’s opening up to show you. Do this and you will start to feel the power of the higher levels of listening.

This is an experiment you can repeat, varying and playing with it as you go. Try choosing different topics – things you hate, things of utter indifference. If you're feeling really ambitious, try really taking on Level Three listening by doing the exercise without talking – just use grunting, body language, whatever you like as long as you don't talk.Test your listening skills and see what you can hear then!

If you want to learn more about the levels of listening, check out the Co-Active Coaching Toolkit, and start improving your relationships.
Written By

Mark Lister

Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, Mark The Coach loves his life; the joys of fatherhood, the thrills of mountain biking, the inspiration of music and the arts, the bliss of love, the fulfilment of work. Coaching and self-development have had a huge and positive impact on Mark in all those areas and more, and he is passionate about sharing that with others and working with them to make a similar difference in their own lives.

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