Mastering the 4 levels of listening

Mastering the 4 levels of listening


Listening is about others. It’s about giving them what they want and need. It’s about connecting with others on many different levels.

Stephen Covey said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Listening has become a lost art, perhaps because we’ve become so focused on ourselves. We’re used to getting what we want when we want it in this on-demand world. Listening is about others. It’s about giving them what they want and need. It’s about connecting with others on many different levels.

There are four levels of listening: being an attentive presence, clarifying and interpreting meaning, providing empathy and acting generatively.

Level 1: Being an attentive presence

People like to be heard. They look for physical cues that indicate you’re giving them your full attention. Become the sun and allow the one you’re attending to feel your warmth with your S.O.L.E.R. listening skills:

  • Squarely face the person, belly button to belly button.
  • Open your posture. Don’t put those hands in your pockets or behind your head. And don’t point your feet toward the door.
  • Lean toward the speaker. Let them know nothing is as important as what they are saying to you.
  • Eye contact maintained. Eye contact can change the chemistry of both the listener and the speaker. Let them know they are important to you by looking them in the eyes.
  • Relax while listening. Being overly engaged and self-conscious about your listening posture can produce the opposite effect. Be present and attentive, but not overeager. You don’t want the speaker to think you’re in a hurry to get or be somewhere else.

Level 2: Clarifying and interpreting meaning

It’s reassuring and comforting for people to hear what they’ve said. Sometimes they want confirmation that you’ve understood their meaning, and sometimes they need or want help interpreting the meaning of what they’ve said. Here are three ways you can help:

Restatement: Restate exactly what has been said, and ask for clarification if there’s something you don’t fully comprehend.

Paraphrasing: This reflects the essence of what was said. Paraphrasing is almost always shorter than what was actually said. Keep it tentative in order to leave the speaker an opportunity to correct you. Strike a nice balance between your words and theirs, so it doesn’t feel like you’re stealing too many of their words or shifting the meaning by using too many of your own. When you paraphrase, you communicate that you’re listening, but you’re also aware that the speaker likely wants to continue speaking.

Interpretation: You move beyond what was actually articulated to the meaning, beliefs, values, assumptions or goals behind the words. You may connect what has been said to a larger narrative involving the speaker.

Level 3: Providing empathy

This type of listening demonstrates that you are in it with the speaker. Empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection, according to Bren Brown.

Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, suggests these four attributes are present with empathetic listening:

  • See the world as the other sees it. Put yourself away.
  • Be non-judgmental.
  • Be in touch with the other person’s feelings. Be aware of how those feelings might differ from your own.
  • Communicate your understanding of the speaker’s feelings. Rather than saying, “At least you…” or “It could be worse…” try instead, “I’ve been there, and that really hurts.”

Level 4: Acting generatively

This is when you listen beyond the words and feelings. It is when you forge a connection with the person in such a deep way you become generative with your hearing — adding more, much more than what is being said. You are helping the other person experience hearing themselves. You will need to let go of your self-awareness to be this present with the other. This is a story told by David Hanlon and Jill Rigney that does a great job of illustrating generative listening:

Successful actors have to give up being themselves. Highlighting this is a wonderful story about Marlon Brando, regarded by many as one of the finest actors of the 20th century. Brando was taking part in a roleplay in his first year at acting school. The class had been instructed to act like chickens, with the additional instruction that a nuclear bomb was about to fall on them. Most of the class clucked and ran around wildly, but Brando sat calmly and pretended to lay an egg. Asked why he had chosen to react this way, he said, “I’m a chicken, what do I know about nuclear bombs?” This delightful story highlights the fact that Brando truly put himself in the place of a chicken while the lesser-skilled actors were chickens on the surface only. Brando was able to let himself go in order to fully enter the world of the chicken.

When you’re listening at level four, you experience life as the other. You fully enter their world.


Gary Cohen is managing partner and co-founder of CO2 Partners, an executive coaching and leadership development firm. Previously, he founded ACI in 1989 with $4,000 and two employees, then grew 48 percent compounded annually for 12 years to more than 2,200 employees and went public on the NASDAQ. He is author of “Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions.”
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