3 levels of listening – do you use them all?

How well do you listen to others – I mean really listen? Many of us think we’re good listeners, yet in reality we’re likely to be enthusiastic talkers – different skill.


Most of us are fortunate enough to be able to hear well, but hearing what someone says is not the same as really listening to them. When we really listen we pay much more attention to the speaker and what is going on for them. Active listening is a skill and as with all skills, we can improve it with practice. I’ve observed three levels of listening – especially in the work place – between people. Here’s a useful exercise from my ‘How to communicate for clarity’ workshop to help you to consider how proficient you are, and how much time you spend at each level.

1. Amiable listening

Observing two people conversing in at the amiable level is like watching ping-pong. The conversation goes back and forth in an amiable exchange of question and answer.  Amiable listening is typical at the beginning of a meeting, as everyone gathers: ‘How was your weekend?’ ‘Great thanks’; ‘What have you been up to?’ ‘Flat out on project Z’ and so on.

This small talk serves a useful purpose as it can break the ice and builds low level empathy by identifying points we have in common. Most of us can converse in this way without even thinking – indeed we may not be thinking!  We hear without really listening. Spend too long at the amiable level and the conversation can wander – fine at the right time and place.

2. Attentive listening

When we’re listening attentively, we give the other party full attention. We’re not just listening to what they say without interrupting them; our body language is probably in sync with the speaker in some ways too. We’re letting the speaker steer the conversation and following along.

Listening at this level demonstrates high empathy. The speaker is likely to feel they’ve been heard, and hopefully, understood. There’s a time and place for attentive listening, for example when someone needs to confide in us; talk through something that’s troubling them; or make sense of a situation by talking about it.

3. Active listening

The clue’s in the name; more energy is required. Active listening results in a deeper exchange and discussion. We’re steering the conversation, taking an active role in its course. When we listen actively we’re asking probing questions (so more likely to begin with ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘how’).

The empathy must still be there when listening at this level and we’ll be observing in greater detail what the body language is saying – and what the speaker is NOT saying. That way we’ll pick up on both facts and feelings.  We’re more likely to summarise at points along the course of this conversation, and if it’s appropriate, seek agreement. There’s a time and place where active listening is essential, for example discussing business issues, seeking to explore shared benefits or making tough decisions.

All three levels of listening are valuable and useful. No prizes for guessing which we’re most comfortable with and therefore more likely to use as a default.

If you want to be a more effective listener, consider how much of your working time is spent at each of the three levels of listening. Practise listening at all three levels in your next meeting and notice the difference.


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’


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