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4 Levels of Listening – Learning Active Empathetic Listening

Applied Empathy begins with deep listening, and listening has many nuanced dimensions.

Listening is a form of paying attention that goes far beyond just the words spoken.

What can we pay attention to in a conversation?

This article brings awareness to the multitude of dimensions you can be aware of when listening so that you can broaden and deepen the way you receive another human being.

How we listen – the quality of our attention – and how we respond determines how deeply someone feels seen, understood and valued.

The more intentional we are with the way we listen and respond, the more we can intentionally create a culture of empathy where every touchpoint with a human being is an opportunity to offer our attention in a way that nourishes both the Speaker and the Listener.

“The degree to which I can create relationships, which facilitate the growth of others as separate persons, is a measure of the growth I have achieved in myself.”- Carl Rogers

After I introduce the 4 levels of listening, I share the most effective way to learn Active Empathic Listening. Check out my events to participate in an Empathy Circle so that you can shift from concept to experience.

Just before we dive in, remember, no level of listening is bad or wrong. It’s best to relate with these levels as points-of-awareness that can support you in being more intentional with the way you listen.

1) Distracted / Pretend Listening

  • We either don’t care or don’t have the mental and emotional capacity to give our full attention to someone.

2) Selective / Reactive Listening

  • Listen within your own frame of reference. We automatically ask ourselves, “What does this have to do with me?” We compare what the Speaker says to ourselves.

  • Listen until it hits a trigger. We automatically ask ourselves, “Do I agree or disagree?” If we disagree we tend to stop listening intently and disregard what the Speaker says because it conflicts with our worldview.

  • Listening to confirm judgments / beliefs / opinions. The confirmation bias automatically directs our attention to search for information that proves what we already believe. This largely unconscious process constantly evaluates the information we take in and discards anything that doesn’t align with our identity.

  • Listening for solutions. Since many of us gain significance from helping others, it’s common to adopt the Fixer / Rescuer / Hero role . When we listen from this orientation, we make the Speaker a victim, assume they need us to help them and take responsibility for their problems. Check out my blog on Dr. Karpman's Drama Triangle to understand how to end cycles of drama.

  • Listening for content / information / facts. We only hear what is said, not how it's said. We listen at the level of words even though there is much more information being given to us through body language, tone of voice, what isn’t said, and much more as we'll see in the next section.

  • Listening for our turn. The Speaker finishes and we jump in to comment on what they said. We were listening to respond not to understand.

3) Active Empathic Listening

In level 3 we consciously shift from "listening to" to "listening for" which means we're aware that listening has multiple dimensions. We also acknowledge that there is a reciprocal relationship between listening and speaking - the way that we listening shapes the story being told - so we consciously give our attention to the Speaker seeking to create trust and understanding.

"Empathy is saying to someone: “I’m trying to be a companion to you in your search and your exploration. I want to know, am I with you? Is this the way it seems to you? Is this the thing you’re trying to express? Is this the meaning it has for you?” So in a sense I’m saying, “I’m walking with you step by step, and I want to make sure I am with you. Am I with you?." - Carl Rogers

  • When we ask questions, the intention or motivation behind our curiosity is to create shared reality.

  • Listening to what the Speakers says and doesn’t say. What they leave out is just as important as what they say.

  • Listening for hidden assumptions and expectations. What are the assumptions, conclusions, biases, blindspots and questions underneath their words?

  • Listening for nonverbal cues and emotions. Body language is another form of expression that gives us more information to feel, know and be with someone. How do you feel in the Speakers presence? What you feel can point to how they're feeling.

  • Listening for personal meaning. Every word has slightly different meaning to different people. We pay attention to distinctions that help us clarify their personal meaning and we check our assumptions, "What does ____ mean to you?"

  • Listening for context, position and purpose. We seek to understand someone's worldview - where they are coming from. What in their life’s history has shaped how they see the world and how they’re acting today? Why is x important to them? What is the motivation or intention behind what they're saying?

  • Listening within their frame of reference. We intentionally ask ourselves, “What is it like to be the person I’m listening to?” We seek to “try on” their experience of reality to see things the way they do from the inside out.

  • Listening for the Chief Concern vs. Chief Complaint. Every complaint is a care in disguise. We can intentionally search for the care / concern underneath every complaint knowing that every time someone speaks they desire to be heard.

4) Learning / Generative Dialogue

This is a subtler distinction that builds upon level 3. It highlights how deeply we are willing to be changed and affected by what we receive as the Listener.

  • Deep listening is vulnerable. We’re willing to be affected and changed as a result of what someone says. We are humble and open ourselves up to being changed; to see new perspectives that might conflict with our current worldview. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. When we're truly listening deeply, we're a companion on someone's journey:

“I believe: the deepest way you can love somebody is to be willing to FULLY go on their ride. To listen to them so deeply that - through your listening - they gain deeper insight into their own experience.” - Guy Sengstock

  • A generative dialogue leverages the power of our difference to create something new. In other words, rather than try to see things the same way, we acknowledge that we are different and use our unique perspectives to create a more complete picture of the whole truth which informs a higher-level decision-making.

"I've learned that my view of the world is no more true than my partner's point of view. In fact, when we combine our views, we create something more valid than either one of us can create alone. We both give something up, only to gain a great deal more." - Harville Hendrix

The most effective way to learn Active Empathic Listening:

Most people have empathy for others but demonstrating empathy is a skill that is learned and practiced.

Listening with the intention to repeat back in your own words what you understood changes the way you pay attention.

You're not listened to respond, but to understand. Then, rather than commenting on what is said, you paraphrase or summarize what you heard.

This way of listening and responding is also called reflective or empathic listening.

It’s not about getting it right, as much as it is about checking in with the Speaker to see if what you understood is correct.

Doing so offers the Speaker an opportunity to add anything that was missed, clarify anything that wasn’t quite correct and reiterate anything they especially want the Listener to understand.

There are many levels to this kind of listening:

“When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, "Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it's like to be me”. - Carl Rogers

While listening to someone, their tone of voice and especially their facial expression told me they were in disbelief. He looked down, wide-eyed with his hands up shaking in front of him, his head moving left and right. I could sense his astonishment. A few sentences later he continued, "I almost felt angry."That made sense because it was as if he'd been blindsided by this new awareness he'd gained.

He never said he was "astonished" or that he could "barely believe it", but when I reflected back what I received from him, his response was, "Yes, exactly." I understood something about his experience that allowed me to "be with" him; a companion on his inner journey of personal meaning and self-expression.

When we apply empathy and demonstrate our understanding, the person we're listening to doesn't feel alone anymore. Whether they're joyous or depressed, we can feel that we're together. It has nothing to do with right, wrong, good and bad but our shared human experience.

I believe it is this "with-ness" or "togetherness" that we are all seeking. It's a cocktail of acceptance, belonging, connection and love. No solutions or answers are needed, no comments or remarks about what they said. It's just about listening, being heard and responding in a way that lets them know, "I'm with you."

"Being listened to and heard is one of the greatest desires of the human heart." - Richard Carlson

To become more empathetic, to shift empathy from a concept to an action, the first step is simple: Listen with the intention to paraphrase what you heard. Make what they said your own, then check in with them, "Am I with you?"