How Listening Better Will Help You: Knowing the Five Levels

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Have you ever noticed that when you speak to someone, they are at the ready with an answer before you have finished what you wanted to say? Many people indeed listen, but only enough to be able to reply rather than enough to understand your point of view. There are five levels of listening, and knowing and understanding them will help you to become a better listener.

How well do you listen?

The Levels

  1. Ignoring
  2. Pretend Listening
  3. Selective Listening
  4. Attentive Listening
  5. Empathic Listening


Ignoring does not sound like listening at all, and in fact, it is not. Ignoring someone means you are really not hearing him and are probably even distracted by something else. You may still be engrossed in your television show, or perhaps something on your phone has caught your attention.


Pretend Listening

When you are pretending to listen to someone, you are generally at least looking at the speaker. Usually, though, the speaker can tell you are distracted. You may have a far-a-way look in your eyes, or you may be distracted by something on your phone.

A speaker may also detect that you are pretend listening if you are using general responses such as “I see” and “oh yeah.”

People can tell pretty easily when the information is going in one ear and out the other

Selective Listening

Selective listening requires you to pay some attention to what someone is saying. When you are listening selectively, you are getting the basis of what the speaker is trying to say. Selective listening also means you are just thinking of a response. You do not understand what the speaker is feeling.

Selective listening means that you are taking an interest in at least some part of the conversation. In The Art of Listening by Michael P. Nichols, it is said:

“There’s a big difference between showing and interest and really taking interest.”

You know that feeling when someone is drifting in and out of your conversation?

Attentive Listening

Attentive listening is the level that you should aim for in your day-to-day life. Active listening means that you are concentrating on what the other person is saying and hearing not only the words but also understanding their intent. You work at internalizing the concepts and understanding the message the other speaker is trying to convey.

To show a speaker that you are actively listening, you need to make eye contact.  Another way that your conversation partner will know that you are actively engaged is if you ask some questions for clarification or rephrase their words to make sure you understood clearly.

Attentive listening requires thought at the same time. As you seek to understand the other person, you will also be forming your own opinion on the matter and deciding if you agree or disagree. In this instance, you still have the intent to respond, but your response will reflect the ideas that the speaker has presented. They will be well thought out and more articulate when you show that you listened to the person’s perspective.

People will know when you have been listening to them as you will be able to ask well-thought-out questions, rephrase their views, and respond with interest.

As fantastic as attentive listening is, there is one more level that we can get to past that!

Try to always be present and attentive when in conversation

Empathic Listening

Larry Barker, author of Listen Up, says that “[E]ffective listeners remember that words have no meaning – people have meaning.”

Empathic listening requires the most effort on the part of the listener. It takes mental and emotional energy to be an empathic listener because it involves the use of not only our ears but also of our hearts and our mind.

An empathic listener will be doing the same work as an active listener, but also trying to frame the thoughts and feelings of the speaker as well as his own.

Empathic listening, though exhausting, is also rewarding. There may not be a lot of people in your circle who will attain this level of conversation with you; we reserve it for closest friends and family members.  If you are working on relationship building with anyone, being an empathic listener will undoubtedly help to tighten your bond and help you grow.

Strive to be empathetic to people’s feelings. Understand their needs.

How to Practice Listening

You may see yourself in one category and want to improve your listening skills.  Improving your listening skills can help you in both your professional and your personal life.



One thing you can do to practice becoming a better listener is to work on your body language. When someone is speaking to you, make sure to make eye contact with the speaker, and avoid any distractions. That means setting aside what you were doing and giving your full attention to the conversation.

Often, we all have our phone at the ready to make sure we don’t miss anything. But remember, if you are not fully engaged in listening to the speaker in front of you, you are missing something.

Another skill to work in is to listen without responding. You will have an opportunity to reply, but you must do it thoughtfully. It merely means that you are going to give the speaker time to get all of his ideas out first. You will listen thoughtfully and then respond at the appropriate time.

Try to visualize what the speaker is saying. Visualizing will help you stay focused on the conversation, whether your mind is creating a concept map, a visual picture, or a list of words and phrases that struck you.

Asking Questions to clarify what the speaker is saying also shows that you are listing. Just be sure to hold your questions until the speaker pauses so that you are not interrupting. It is also prudent to only ask questions that will clarify your understanding. Do not ask questions that will steer the conversation to a side topic causing the speaker to lose focus on what he wanted to say and the message he was trying to convey.

Practice these steps in your day-to-day life

Being a Good Listener

If you would like to move from selective listening to attentive listening or even empathic listening, remember what skills each kind of listening requires of you. Practice these skills with people you know well.

It is okay to tell someone that you want to practice your listening skills. That way, a friend can help to remind you and pull you back to focus if you appear distracted. It will also allow you to practice phrasing questions correctly and listening for the response to clarify ideas.

Listening is a skill that we are all born with, but when we start to practice listening, it becomes more of an art form. Being a better listener will help you in all aspects of your life, from business interactions to friendly interactions, to exclusive relationships. Listening is a life-long skill that can always improve with each interaction.









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