Levels of Listening

Posted & filed under HR Elevated.

A number of years ago, it was pointed out to me that the word ‘listen’ contains the exact same letters as the word ‘silent.’ I’ve often wondered if it’s a coincidence or serendipity. Either way, it works nicely. It was also pointed out to me by a great mentor, Tom Shimizu, that most of us were born to listen.


We came into this world with two ears, two eyes and one mouth. He then added, “Keep the ratio in mind.”


What impressed me then, and still does now, is Tom’s impeccable example in modeling this critical characteristic. He was truly a master listener. Some years later, I had the opportunity to learn more about listening from the well-known author and business leader, Stephen R. Covey. In his writings and trainings, he pointed out that there is more to it than either listening or not. There are actually five levels of listening: ignoring, pretending, selective listening, attentive listening and empathic listening.


Ignoring Listening

Ignoring is the most basic level of listening. It is when we expend zero effort to listen. Personally, this happens to be one of my greatest weaknesses, maybe even my Achilles heel. It comes with not managing or even misusing my strength in focusing. My wife and children can tell you how many times they have had to repeat my name or use varying titles to finally get my attention when I’m focused on something less important than engaging with them.


Pretending Listening

Pretending (patronizing) is the next level of listening. At this level, we are at least giving the appearance of listening, as the name indicates. This works just fine until the person with whom we are speaking or to whom we are supposedly listening to asks a question related to what they were saying. When that happens, we’re caught! A definite withdrawal is made from the trust or emotional bank account of that relationship, and it’s only made worse when we try to cover it up.


Selective Listening

Selective listening is a step in the right direction, as it does involve at least a basic level of listening. The problem with this level is that we are only listening to parts of the message, and usually to respond with some kind of winning comeback. This type of listening can frequently result in increased miscommunication and misunderstanding as the parties potentially hear different parts of the exchange.


Attentive Listening

Attentive listening is the level we should most frequently seek to achieve in our day-to-day interactions, especially in the work environment. As the name indicates, this is the level at which we are paying attention to the other person and internalizing the message. It usually involves eye contact, thinking to understand, reflecting, rephrasing, and other tools to keep us fully engaged and sending the message to the other party, “I am engaged and seeking to understand.” However, even at its best, this level of listening is still based upon relatability to our own individual experience or frame of reference. The fact is we still have an even more advanced level of listening we can achieve.


Empathetic Listening

Empathic listening is the highest level of listening and the one that requires that greatest amount of mental and emotional energy. It reaches beyond attentive listening because it requires us to focus on and seek the other person’s frame of reference using our full listening faculties, plus our heart and mind.


When we empathically listen, we immerse ourselves in understanding how the other person is thinking and feeling. We actively push our own perspective out of our mind and heart and instead try to walk with them, see as they see and feel as they feel.


It is immensely exhausting yet rewarding. It is a level of listening reserved for the closest relationships and the most critical of times. I have only reached this level a few times in my life, and wow was it taxing. However, what it did for each of us and our relationship was priceless.


True listening is rare and invaluable. I’m thankful it is the communication skill we strive to emphasize most at England Logistics. With that in mind, it seems a bit hypocritical that I would spend so much time talking about listening instead of actually listening. So, now I will conclude and invite you to share. What have you done to improve your listening? What can we do to use listening more effectively as we learn, grow, strengthen communications and in turn nurture relationships? Please share. I’m listening.

– Wayne DavisVP of Talent Development




As a Talent Management/HR executive with over 20 years of talent and human resource management experience, I strive to deliver value generating services to internal and external clients. This has provided me with the ability to lead or influence people in developing solutions to achieve higher levels of measurable success. My professional interests are targeted toward helping clients achieve their optimum performance through people solutions.