The Four Levels of Listening

And ear with sound waves

Google “how many words does the average person hear in a day” and you’ll get search results suggesting somewhere in the range of 20,000 to 100,000 words per day. To give you a reference point, a 200 page book has about 60,000 words.

You hear a lot. But how well do you listen?

Communicating involves more than just talking. You also have to listen. I believe the easiest way to grow as a communicator is to spend more time listening and to learn how to listen at deeper levels.

Three Types of Listening

I have identified three basic types and four levels of listening:

  1. Reactive
  2. Reflective
  3. Connective

Reactive Listening

Reactive listening is the first level of listening. It comes from either responding to instructions or from allowing your emotions to take control. Reactive listening usually prompts short responses: one or two words or short phrases.

  • Yes
  • No
  • Okay
  • Be quiet
  • Enough already!
  • Damn it.
  • Excellent.
  • Agreed
  • I suppose.
  • $%#! you!

Reactive listening is transactional. It’s on the surface. There is a time and place for it, but if all of your listening is reactive you will lack depth and you’ll feel like you’re living your life in fast food joints:

“How can I help you?”

“I’ll have combo number two.”

“Would you like fries with that?”

“No thank you.”

Reactive listening is built around the idea of I’m right and you’re wrong or I’m in charge so do what I say. Much of what we saw in this country over the past 18 months around the presidential election was level one listening—by all sides.

It’s not exactly soul affirming.

There are times when you have to listen at level one, but if you never go deeper you will likely discover that most of the relationships in your life are transactional and surface.

Reflective Listening

Level two and level three are both reflective listening.

I listening

Level two is what I call “I listening.” That’s where the listener reframes everything to his or her experience.

If you tell a level two listener about a movie you saw last week, he will respond along these lines: “Oh I saw that two weeks ago. I thought it was too long.”

Tell a level two listener about a client proposal you’re working on and she’ll come back with something like this: “I hate doing proposals. They’re so time-consuming.”

Level two listeners hear you but only long enough to reflect back to you something about them, their perspective or experience.

Much of the classroom learning you have done or job training you have gone through is done at level two. You are listening for what you can get out of it. There’s nothing wrong with that. There is a time and place where level two listening is where you need to be.

A level two listener is deeper than just a transaction but it never goes deeper than the other person’s perspective or experience. If you take your problem to a level two listener, the most you will get out of it is their take on your problem or their experience with similar problems.

Level two listeners love to one-up you. They are essentially saying, “I hear you, but shut up now so I can tell you something about me that’s even more interesting.”

You Listening

Level three is also reflective listening. This is “You listening.” When you talk to a level three listener they take the time to reflect back to you and learn more about your perspective.

Here are the kind of responses you often get from a level three listener:

“How did that experience make you feel?”

“That’s interesting. What do you think we should do?”

“You might be on to something here.”

“You make a lot of sense.”

“How would you like to proceed?”

Level three listeners show a real interest in what you have to say and they devote energy into fully understanding where you are coming from. Level three listeners build relationships because they strive for empathy compared to level two listeners who are just trying to impress you.

Level three listening is where a lot of people begin on a date. Unfortunately, as the relationship continues it frequently moves more to level two or level one. That’s the wrong direction.

Connective Listening

The real magic comes at level four. That’s connective listening.

A connective listener is mature enough not to react to what you do or say with an emotional response. A connective listener is secure enough with themselves that they don’t need to try to impress or one-up you with their response. And while a connective listener will take the time to learn more about your perspective, they’ll often do it in a more intuitive way than just reflecting back to you with questions about you. They’ll listen to your body language. They’ll consider the context of what they’re listening too. connective listeners don’t feel compelled to arm wrestle you into compliance with how they see the situation.

A connective listener gives the gift of total presence and full attention.

When you communicate with a connective listener, a level four listener, you will intuitively sense that they get you, they understand you—even when they may not agree with you. They aren’t just going along to get along. They have opinions and perspectives too, but they don’t feel compelled to share those with you until you feel understood. That’s where the connection comes from.

Connective listeners make you feel understood. That connects you to them because they have given you the gift of their full attention without

Connective listeners make you feel understood. That connects you to them because they have given you the gift of their full attention without judgment.

Connective listeners have the ability to listen without even needing to respond. A level two or level three listener will usually nod his or her head while you’re mid-way through saying what you want to say because they have already formulated what they want to say and they’re waiting for you to stop talking so they can start talking! Not a connective listener.

At the deepest level, listening builds relationships because it gives someone the gift of your full attention—voluntarily and not just because you are your boss or the other party in a transaction. When the other party feels truly heard, they’ll frequently feel compelled to return that gift. When you have two or more people giving each other their full attention, it’s a pretty short path to understanding.

Connective listening seems, at first, like it takes more time. And initially, it does. But long term it saves times because it reduces the amount of time and energy you have to spend patching up misunderstandings.

Now, unless you are a spiritual guru, you won’t likely spend all of your time at level four. After all, you don’t go into a fast-food restaurant to establish a relationship. We all listen at different levels. The question is how much time do you spend at each level?

How would you describe your baseline style of listening? Reactive, reflective, or connective?

In my experience, the quality of your relationships, and to a degree the quality of your life, has a lot to do with how much time you spend listening at levels three and four.

If you think you spend too much time at the reactive level (or if someone close to you thinks you spend too much time there), and you would like to move in the direction of becoming a connective listener, try to develop these two habits

1. Pause between comments

When the other person finishes what they have to say, avoid the urge to jump right in. Pause for a second. It might seem awkward at first, but you will soon find the conversation starts to “breathe.” It will have a more comfortable tempo, feel less rushed. Gradually, that pause will remind you to avoid rushing in with “I” comments. Reflect back with “You” comments.

2. Listen without intent to reply

Connective listeners do this one thing and it changes everything. They just listen. They aren’t formulating what they are going to say. They aren’t nodding their head like a bobblehead doll waiting for the other person to take a breath so they can jump in. And they aren’t reframing everything the conversation around their own perspective and point of view.

They just listen.

The gift of their full attention and presence gives the other person what they are really looking for anyway. And because they are fully present, connective listeners usually find that when it is their turn to talk, the right thing to say just seems to come to them.

Interestingly enough, connective listeners often say less more than most people but others pay closer attention to them when they do.

This approach to listening works in a one-on-one conversation in your home or your workplace. It also works extremely well during a presentation when you bring it around the question and answer session.

Each level has its proper place. And no one level of communication is wrong. If you’re crossing a busy street and someone yells, “Stop,” you want to be a level one, reactive listener. Your life might depend on it. But if your spouse or your boss is sharing a deep frustration with you, you want to strive to be a level three or four listener. Your relationship might depend on it.

Understand the situation. Try to match the listening level to the situation. When appropriate, go for the connection. Be present. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say next. And try to leave the word “I” out of it as much as possible.

Okay, it’s my turn to listen. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think of my take on listening. I would love to listen to your thoughts.

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