Types of listening: top 5 styles

Speaker on the wall

Listening may be more important than ever; as we become ever more virtual in our styles and methods of communication, displaying good communication skills is crucial to our interactions. Yet, it can be even more of a challenge, as the number of physical cues are less readily available in the virtual setting. One of the key ways to improve your communication is through being able to listen effectively. But did you know there are different types of listening?

Maybe not, but now is a perfect time to reflect on our listening skills and approaches in order to get the best out of each other and our interactions, while being remote.

The 5 levels of listening

Some years ago, I came across my first golden nugget of learning regarding listening; the 5 basic levels of listening. Consider it like a ladder, for me, the higher the rung, the more focus and dedication each level requires.

So, as we go through the types of listening in more detail, take a moment to consider your position on the ladder. Where do you spend most of your time? How does it impact your friends, family and colleagues? Are you putting in the necessary time and effort required?

Let’s look at the 5 levels. They are;

  1. Not listening at all / Ignoring
  2. Pretending to listen
  3. Selective listening 
  4.  Attentive listening 
  5. Empathic listening 

Level 1: Not listening at all/Ignoring

Ironically- the first type of listening is actually not listening it all! Have you ever found yourself turning down the volume on a conversation to zero?  Sometimes you might just check out altogether. And often it might not even look like you are listening at all! It’s quite a skill – you zone off to a different world entirely with your eyes glazed, as the conversation washes  over you.

Do you find yourself doing this? Being physically present with someone, or virtually together, but mentally checking out? It is quite common- but doesn’t make for good listening at all, or for good interactions with others. Your partner may feel disrespected, misunderstood, and most likely unheard.

Level 2: Pretending to listen

Have you ever been in a conversation where it is clear the other person is only pretending to listen to you? Do they wait for the pauses in your sentences to throw in a “Yeah. Uh huh. Definitely” or similar? Do you sometimes find yourself doing this?

This is the second rung on the ladder. This type of listening is called ‘pretending to listen’. It is one up from the rung before. At least this time you are pretending to be engaged! But this is where the differences end. In terms of the quality of your listening, it is no better. You give verbal cues to keep up the pretense that you are listening, when really, you couldn’t repeat a word they just said.

Level 3: Selective listening

Picture this; you’re sat in a meeting, your colleagues have been talking about figures and targets for the last twenty minutes and you have zoned out. Then you hear, “So, let’s move on to this year’s bonuses,” and you snap back to attention.

The third type of listening is called selective listening. We pick out the bits of the conversation that most pique our attention, or will have the greatest impact, and the rest fades to white noise. Like tuning in to your favourite song on the radio, while the rest of the stations or music remains in static- we only focus our attention on what interests us.

How often do you find yourself selective listening? Are there some situations where you practice it more than you should?

Level 4: Attentive listening

The fourth type of listening, attentive listening is being completely focused and undistracted, taking on board everything that the other person has to say, while paying attention to details and processing the information. It’s definitely a much more respectful, engaging and effective way of listening.

However, this is also where we often find ourselves listening to reply; formulating what we want to say in response to the other person before they have even finished speaking. We might look to form our defenses, and comebacks, based on the information presented to us at the time and the type of conversation. And as we are processing and thinking of answers and counter arguments we are missing some of the messaging coming at us.

Level 5: Empathic listening

This is the top rung of the ladder, the highest type of listening one can achieve and also the largest investment in terms of energy and time.

Empathic listening is opening a pathway between you and the other person, hearing the cues in their voice, allowing for exploration of meanings and feelings as well as fact and information. Rather than steering a conversation – just go where the conversation takes you, with no judgement or pre-formulated response. Enjoy the journey and immerse yourself to really get the most from talking with others. When we do, we might find out extraordinary, important or insightful information.

It is a true conversation, full of checking back and reacting to what is being said in a meaningful way; whilst being truly empathic with the other person.

And as a result, we will have shown our partner that we truly are invested in the relationship and conversation, leaving them feeling heard and respected.

Final thoughts

So there are the 5 types of listening. We may not always be able to achieve the top rung of the ladder- empathic listening, but we can all strive to be better listeners. When we do, we may recieve much more information, knowledge and value out of our conversations. And our partners will leave feeling that they have been truly been listened to.

So, here’s our challenge for you; start paying attention to how much you listen.

And what results do you get when you really listen?

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