Very few people have been taught or trained on how to listen properly, which is quite a shame.
Being an effective listener is important for building relationships, both personal and professional. People do notice when you’re really listening, patiently and intently absorbing everything they have to say. That attention is a great feeling, especially in a world where people are constantly interrupting each other.
You definitely learn a lot more by listening too, since you’re absorbing valuable information. If you only talked, then you’re always giving away information, but never receiving any.
According to author Stephen Covey, who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, there are 5 levels of listening.
Level 1 — Ignoring
A level 1 listener is never really listening to the speaker. They barely even absorb what the speaker is saying. Instead, they’re already thinking about their own response and waiting for their chance to jump in and talk. A level 1 listener will also look like they’re not listening: looking away, multitasking, and fidgeting.
This level of listening is the worst because there is literally no value in it. The speaker notices you’re not listening as it is quite obvious and frankly just plain disrespectful. As the listener, ignoring what the person is saying will cause you to miss some very important information and things to learn.
You’ll notice a level 1 listener by a few things:
- They interrupt the speaker
- They look very excited for the speaker to finish talking
- While the speaker is talking, they’re doing something else like multitasking, fidgeting, or daydreaming
- Once the speaker is done talking, they say something completely irrelevant or off-topic
Stay away from this level!
Level 2 — Pretending
A Level 2 listener just pretends to listen. They may occasionally make eye contact, smile, nod, or even mention some small tangent point about what the speaker is talking about. But they’re not fully absorbing the message.
This is slightly better than level 1, only because at least the person is being polite and giving the speaker some attention. But there’s still many things missing: no true absorbing of the message to respond effectively, no deep learning, and it’s a bit like lying since it’s really just fake listening with a polite front.
You’ll notice a level 2 listener by a few things:
- They’re multitasking, listening while saying “right” and “uh-huh” to acknowledge the speaker while doing or thinking something else
- Smiling and nodding, but can’t give a relevant or intelligent response afterwards
- Never seems fully engaged in the conversation
This is certainly an improvement over level 1 as you should always try to be polite. Still, we do want to upgrade to the next level to get even better.
Level 3 — Selective
At level 3, the listener has finally started to absorb what the speaker is saying. After the speaker is finished, the listener will have fully learned a few things and even be able to respond quite intelligently to some parts.
The problem the level 3 listener has is that they are listening selectively, as they are heavily engaged in confirmation bias. They’re picking out very specific parts of the conversation, the parts they want to hear and are interested in, rather than the whole thing. As a result, they can only selectively absorb and discuss the topic at hand, missing major chunks of what is being shared.
There’s certainly some value here as the listener probably learned a few things and for the most part, the speaker sees that the person is trying to listen. The drawback is that the conversation isn’t as fruitful as it could be since the whole message is never really absorbed. You partially connect with people at this level, but not fully.
You’ll notice a level 3 listener by a few things:
- They lose interest in the conversation once the topic isn’t of interest to them
- They understand and pick up on only specific parts of the conversation
- When responding, they are only able to address a specific part of what was said, rather than the whole essence of the conversation
We’re getting pretty good at level 3. There are working relationships and friendships being formed, at least at the basic level. You’re not making a deep impact just yet, but there’s certainly some bonding and progress in building human relationships and learning from other people.
Level 4 — Attentive
Level 4 listening is where the valuable conversations begin. At this stage, the listener is fully focused on the speaker, concentrating on every said word and the entire conversation. They allow the speaker to finish everything that they have to say before responding and ask some intelligent follow-up questions. Some very minor and usually more subconscious notice of body language may also happen at this level.
Attentive listening is great because this is where the solid back and forth conversations happen. One person talks while the other person focuses fully on absorbing every word and the entire message of the conversation. They can then intelligently respond in a way that furthers the conversation. Everyone is focused on the conversation and listening attentively, which leads to everyone learning new things from each other. Strong relationships for business and pleasure are formed here as each person receives great value from each other.
You’ll notice a level 4 listener by a few things:
- They never interrupt the speaker
- When responding, they are able to touch on every point that was said and even put some partial extra focus on the most important parts
- Their listening is always focused, never multitasking or daydreaming, fully involved in the current human communication
Level 4 is a strong place to be. You learn a lot by collecting all the information from the speaker. On top of that, people notice the attention you give them, helping you form better relationships as you gain their trust.
The beautiful thing is that there’s an even higher level to go from here, one that goes the extra mile to really capture the deepest value of human conversation and relationships.
Level 5 — Empathetic
Level 5 listening is where miracles happen and truly beautiful connections are formed. To be an empathetic listener, you must be like a sponge, suspending all thoughts that don’t involve the current conversation. It is obvious from your facial expression, body language, and insightful questions that you’re listening intensely, fully curious and eager to absorb everything from the conversation. There’s no interrupting as the speaker is given their full chance to say all they have to say. When responding, you take things slow and really think about what you have to say to make sure you are empathetic to everything you just heard.
An empathetic listener absorbs the entirety of the communication: what is being said, the tone of voice, the pace of speech, and the speaker’s body language. From this, the listener is able to form a collective meaning for the entire conversation. They see beyond just the words and understand the deeper message that the speaker is trying to convey. The main focus at this level of listening is to completely comprehend what the other person is trying to communicate. Even when the speaker is struggling to find the right words to articulate the message, you must listen so deeply that you are able to fully understand them.
This is the only level at which truly full relationships are formed. Customers feel like you know them, understanding all of their pains as if you actually were them. Colleagues come to know you as the go-to person, the one that they can really trust with information and project collaborations. Friends, family, and romantic partners see you as an honest, genuine person, a very rare quality in today’s world.
You’ll notice a level 5 listener by a few things:
- They can help people solve problems at a fundamental level
- They truly feel the emotions of the other person
- They are able to understand the deeper message from the speaker, even if they can’t find the words to express it
- People who have a relationship with a level 5 listener, whether professional or personal, fully believe in and trust them
Level 5 is the ultimate goal. You learn more from the deeper listening as you capture the true essence of people. Recognizing body language and being able to read between the lines are key life skills. On top of that, you will form incredibly strong relationships. Very few people can listen empathetically, making it a very valuable skill.
How to Upgrade
The above explanations of each level provide a roadmap for how to improve your listening skills. We can bring all of these points together into a list of things to do to become a great level 5 listener.
- Never interrupt — just listen and wait until they’re finished before even thinking of a response
- Always smiling — be polite and friendly to give off a good vibe. Lean in and smile to keep yourself engaged
- Make eye contact — to help you stay focused on the person and conversation at hand and avoid daydreaming
- No multitasking — make the current conversation your only priority and focus while it’s happening
- Respond to every single point — try to touch on everything that what said. At the very least take everything into account before responding
- Identify the most important point — usually, there is a central theme and point to what a person says. Think deeply and try to identify it, so that you can place more intelligent emphasis on it in your response
- Ask follow up questions to understand more — if you listened intently and still don’t fully understand the person’s deep message, ask some follow-up questions. Questions show that you care what the person is talking about and will help you get more information to connect more deeply with them
- Pay attention to body language — it’s no secret that 80% of our human communication is non-verbal. While listening, recognize and remember a few things: the person’s posture, facial expression, tone of voice, hand movements, eye movements, and sitting or standing position. They will tell you many things about the person’s message, especially its importance to them and how it makes them feel
- Looking for the meaning behind the words — after all words are said, don’t take everything literally. Try to think to yourself about what the meaning behind all the words and body language is. What is the person really trying to say? What is the take-home message? What is the single point of focus here? Understanding this will help you form the very deepest level of connections
Listening well is an extremely rare and valuable skill. Remember these five levels and practice getting better at it with the upgrading tips presented here. Learn how to listen at level 5 and you will be able to form the deepest and strongest of human relationships.