The Three Levels of Listening

Published on
October 3, 2022
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Listening can be a challenge in today’s busy, hyper-connected world. From text messages to emails and Slack notifications, communication never stops. It’s getting harder and harder to stay present with people as we constantly monitor our devices for various pings–so much so that an in-person meeting or phone call can feel like a workflow interruption. Who has time to meet with people when there are so many digital communications to draft? As a result, our listening skills are deteriorating. 

So much more than the passive process of allowing sound waves to flow through your ears, listening is an active and culturally-informed process that shapes our perception of the world around us. The cautionary axiom “speech is silver, silence is golden" was never more relevant than today. 

Listening is the process of gathering data insights that can better inform your own decision-making process. You already know what you think about a given topic; get a second opinion before making a judgment call. Active listening facilitates understanding and heightens our awareness.

New York Times bestselling author, Daniel Coyle, insists that listening is a core leadership skill. As a leader, you want to solve problems, fix what isn’t working, and keep the positive momentum edging forward. But, rather than doing, sometimes the fastest way to solve a problem is to slow down, be quiet, and listen.

According to Coyle, listening well communicates empathy and cultivates unity by centering the conversation around the other person. Our co-founder Wendy Hanson and Seth Weiss said it best in their recent Talent Management article extolling the benefits of a culture of conversation: “Individuals thrive when they form meaningful relationships, and meaningful relationships are formed and sustained through high quality conversations.” 

A good parent listens carefully; whether it’s stories of playground drama, orchestra practice, or relationship troubles, helping your child learn from their mistakes and build confidence depends upon your ability to listen, empathize and connect with their perspectives and emotions. In love, listening to your partner builds a strong platform of connection and caring, and it’s no different with co-workers. 

When you’re speaking with someone, they should be the absolute focus of your attention. If you find yourself getting distracted by the pings on your phone, put it on silent. Bring your attention back to the person in front of you. Don’t just absorb the content of their speech, be present with the emotions they’re conveying and those they’re evoking in you. 

Three Levels to Improving Your Listening

So, how can you become a better listener? After attending the Coaches Training Institute, our BetterManager coaching team reflected on this question and distinguished the following three levels of listening.  

  • Level 1 Listening focuses primarily on oneself–your own thoughts or agenda. You are listening with the intent to respond not understand. You’re actually privileging the voices in your own head. This type of listening doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to connect with someone and truly understand their needs.
  • Level 2 Listening is when you are focused on what someone is communicating beyond their words. You are fully present and your focus is solely on them. You are curious and better able to reflect. This is when people begin feeling seen and heard, which is the goal. 

Building high-trust relationships with your team requires that they feel valued and appreciated by you. It’s critical to ensure a psychologically safe environment where they can comfortably share their ideas, feedback, and feelings without fear of repercussion. 

  • Level 3 Listening extends your focus beyond the conversation to your surrounding environment. It involves everything at Level 2 plus what you gather from other senses (including intuition) to feel the context of what’s being communicated. Level 3 requires openness to the world around you. It is about being fully in the present moment. 

The best leaders listen attentively with complete self- and environmental-awareness. Take stock of your current listening level with people around you. Notice what happens to your mind when you engage in a conversation. Are you distracted? Waiting for your turn to speak? 

Take a few minutes to contemplate the questions below. Jot down some notes before your next planned team meeting.


What small actions do you take to connect with others?


Think of a group setting in which you feel completely safe; one in which you can speak freely and aren’t afraid to give or receive feedback—a place you feel taken care of and appreciated. Now think about the interactions that take place in this setting.  Can you list the belonging cues you’ve received that have created this environment? 

Now, let’s explore some positive habits you would like to add to your listening toolbox. Try to let go of the ones that are stopping you from effectively engaging, leading, and preventing your team from growing.

Habits to Differentiate Good From Poor Listening

This information is from “How to Be a Better Listener” by Sherman K. Okum, Nation’s Business, August 1975, and from “Building a Professional Image: Improving Listening Behavior” by Philip Morgan and Kent Baker, Supervisory Management, November 1995. Only about 25 percent of listeners grasp the central ideas in communications. To improve listening skills, consider the following:

List of bad listening habits
List of skills to strengthen listening

Tips on How to Make Others Feel Safe, Valued, and Heard in Your Presence

  • Do not have your phone out or visible. Even the presence of a phone on a table will detract from the interaction.
  • Mimic their body language. If they are sitting down and you are standing up, this creates an odd and disconnected dynamic. If you’re both sitting down, try having the chairs side by side or at an angle so you’re not directly across from them in interview mode.
  • Try a walking meeting. Some people think and connect better in motion. This will get the blood moving, activate endorphins (even if you don’t break a sweat) and allow for physical proximity without a lot of intense eye contact.
  • Make eye contact. If holding steady eye contact is uncomfortable, allow your eyes to drift and hold a soft focus somewhere, as you might if you were listening to a beautiful piece of music. Let them know you’re listening with gentle head nods, confirming words, and simple prompts such as, “What else?” Keep up the engagement - continue to show you're interested with an occasional question or comment to recap what has been said in a way that communicates you are listening and understanding their message.

    Source: The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle


Become a master of active listening and try to incorporate the following examples at your next one-on-one and/or team meeting:

PRO IDEA #1: Asking Open-ended Questions

  • “It sounds like you have too much on your plate right now. How can I best support you?” 
  • “What would make your job easier?” 
  • “What can I do to assist?” 
  • “Can you tell me more about that?”
  • “How does that make you feel?” 

PRO IDEA #2: Verbal Affirmations

  • “I was really impressed with your presentation today.”
  • “Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the project. I will consider them and get back to you.” 
  • “That must have been a difficult decision, and I think you did the right thing.” 
  • “That’s a great achievement, you should be proud of your work.” 

PRO IDEA #3: Communicating Similar Experiences: 

  • “I’ve gone through similar challenges to the ones that you’re sharing. Do you want to grab a coffee and talk more about it?”
  • “This reminds me of the time that I had to step in for a colleague at a business retreat. I wasn’t prepared at all, and I felt embarrassed as well as uncomfortable through the whole presentation, however, it seemed that no one noticed. You gave a great presentation today- you seemed confident and articulate, so I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

PRO IDEA #4: Paraphrasing

  • “So, what you’re saying is that if you had another project manager working on the technical side of the project, it would run more smoothly? 
  • “If I am hearing correctly, what you mean is that the deadline is not realistic – is that right?”

PRO IDEA #5: Waiting to Disclose Your Opinion

  • “Can you tell me more about this client relationship? When did you meet and what is your history with them?” 
  • “Elaborate on the issue a little bit – when did this all start?” 

These sample questions serve to illustrate an important aspect of leadership: Most of us gloss over opportunities in interactions through the default ways we listen and fail to connect on a human-to-human level. It is about placing yourself in their shoes when you are listening without any filters.

Normally, we are on auto-pilot in the way we respond whether you are at home with your loved ones or on the job. Listening is but one of the many critical communication skills, but they are all similar in that they depend on an awareness of the goals, our own habits, and choosing how we are going to respond.

The good news is, with practice, we can all become more empathetic and effective listeners.

The Impact of Better Listening

An enlightened Eastern spiritual leader stated that “The tongue is a smoldering fire and excess of speech a deadly poison.” These are very striking and powerful words to keep in mind the next time you might feel that urge when you are in a conversation or you have the need to respond in a rash or argumentative manner. On the other hand, when you actively listen you are encouraging respect and understanding. You are gaining valuable information and perspective. 

Furthermore, when we experiment with how we listen, it solidifies our active partnership in conversations. It expands the space for others to reveal what really matters to them and can actually be more efficient if we can get to the heart of the matter more deliberately.

By intentionally applying new ways to listening, we build relationships, and foster collaboration as well as problem-solve more constructively. Here are a few suggestions when responding:

  • Be open, and honest in your response.
  • Respectfully assert your opinion.
  • Treat the other person in a way that you think they would want to be treated.

The Takeaways

Listening is a core leadership skill. Good listeners communicate empathy, fosters unity and prioritizes the speaker over you (the listener).


Express your support through nods, eye contact, and subtle expressions. Don’t jump to offer an immediate solution, just be present. Ask open-ended questions, offer active, guiding feedback, and unearthing a solution together (cultivating that spirit of collaboration).

And above all, nothing matches practice — keeping working out those listening muscles. We all know too well that old habits are hard to break, so you’ll need to make a conscious effort to become an active listener.

Spend a week in which you summarize the main points or outcomes at the end of each conversation or meeting. This will help you get into the habit.

We hope that you are now equipped and on your way to becoming a better communicator, avoiding misunderstandings, and learning new information more easily.

If you’re experiencing challenges in your progress as an active listener, you’re not alone. There are ways to make it easier to work on those skills and you can do that by working with the coaching experts at BetterManager.

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