Communication Skills: Did You Know There Are 5 Levels of Listening?


Most people who think they are good listeners underperform. There is some research that suggests they do so by as much as 60%. This overconfidence impedes their success as it prevents them from truly understanding the motivation of the other side. Nothing puts a relationship in jeopardy faster than poor listening. Husband, wife, son, daughter, boss or subordinate, people do not take long to estimate your commitment to listening, especially when 93% of communication is wrapped up in physical syntax and delivery. Given this percentage, it is not easy to convince someone else that you are listening if in fact you are not. So why do most underperform? Because most don't have the communication skills to recognize that there are five levels to listening.

communication skills

1. Listening For The Gist

The first level is intermittent listening; that is to say listening long enough to get the gist of what the other side is saying before we refocus on our internal voice which is formulating a reaction from our world view. We may not articulate this reaction but internally we are in a dialogue with ourselves about how what is being said does not line up with our logic.

2. Listening To Rebut

At the next level, we listen to rebut. This is where we listen long enough to understand the incoming message until it hits a trigger. The trigger is something in the statement or phrase with which we can argue or rebut.  Once heard, we just wait for the other side to shut up long enough so we can tell them how their position is faulty and by extension, how much smarter we are. These enthusiastic replies undermine communication and the relationship.  Interjecting with a quick response is a clear indication that we are not listening.  At these levels we are focusing on our agenda at the expense of theirs.  

3. Listening for Logic

At the third level, using inference, we listen for the internal logic of what is being said. If this is their worldview, their conclusion or their judgement, why does it make sense to them?

4. Listening for Emotion

At the fourth level we listen for any emotions and or identity issues that may be driving their argument.  These emotions or issues may (unlikely) or may not (most assuredly) make sense to us but at this level we recognize their significance to the other side as they talk about what is important to them.

5. Listening for Their Point of View

One level beyond that is where we listen for what their argument, phrase, or statement says about who they are in world.  What does it symbolize or represent to them? This communication skill is where we filter their emotion and logic through a prism of empathy. It is where we should be as negotiators. Getting beyond the cursory level of understanding to a deeper appreciation of their world view. If we do not understand their world view, we do not really understand them.  If we do not understand them, we will never influence them.  It it is difficult to maintain this level of listening every waking moment of everyday but we need to be ready and willing to get here when the situation dictates.

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About The Author

Derek Gaunt is lecturer, author of Ego, Authority, Failure, and trainer with 29 years of law enforcement experience, 20 of which as a team member, leader and then commander of hostage negotiations teams in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. As a member of the Black Swan Group, he is a negotiation trainer and personal coach. His training has helped leaders and their organizations increase their performance by changing the way they think about communicating one person to another.