TIB #23: The 5 levels of listening to best connect with anyone

Written by Arno Jansen

You were born with two ears to listen with, and one mouth to speak with. That tells you something about the importance of listening.

Learn these levels of listening and how to apply them to better serve your audience and customers as a creator or entrepreneur.

With awareness and practice, you too can become a great listener.


As creators and entrepreneurs, we have to put our work out there in order to attract an audience. As a result, we speak and write a lot to create content, products and services.

To make that content, and those products and services best serve our intended audience, we have to learn to listen to them. The development and delivery of a product or service simply do not happen in a vacuum.

To listen well, means to shut up more (and pay attention).

Did you know: “listen” is made up of the same letters that spell “silent“?

You can learn to be a great listener if you are able to utilize the right listening technique in the right situation. We were born with two ears and one mouth for a reason.

Why listen?

These 5 levels of listening focus on increasing levels of personal connection. The origins of these 5 levels of listening can be found in Stephen Covey’s book “7 habits of highly effective people“. The book is considered the best business book and is highly recommended for self-improvement).

In it, he states:

Most people listen with the intent to reply, but we should listen with the intent to understand.

Keep in mind that all levels of listening have their uses and situations, but the best listeners are the ones who are able to listen on the highest levels.

Level 1 – Ignoring

Ignoring as a form of listening sounds counterintuitive. But consciously ignoring somebody who is talking, is a form of listening. Ignoring is your response to what you are listening to.

In some situations, ignoring is rude. In others, it is a very useful skill. Ask any parent with young children. 

Imagine yourself walking home at night and a drunk person on the other wide of the street starts to yell at you aggressively, but unintelligibly. You could walk over and ask the drunk to articulate better so that you can enter into a deep conversation. Or, you can decide to ignore the drunk and keep walking.

Consciously ignoring can be useful to prevent getting into a conversation or situation you do not want to be involved in.

The skill of consciously ignoring, comes in handy for us creators and entrepreneurs, when going through the comment sections on our blogs and YouTube channels. 😉

Level 2 – Pretending

When you are pretending to listen, the speaker may not notice you are just pretending initially. But, it is hard to keep up the charade for long.

This form of listening is usually accompanied by short murmurs and “listening noises”. The “uhuh”, “yeah”, and “sure” sounds to (hopefully) trick the speaker into believing you are paying attention.

Except that you are not. And this will likely be noticed sooner or later when talking in person. 

This form of listening can be a way to respect the relationship, without engaging on the topic being discussed. You do not cut somebody off, ignore then or just walk away. But, you also do not fully engage with what is being said.

Pretending to listen can be rude. Someone is sharing something with you, and you are not actually paying attention. Especially when you are hunched over at 45 degrees scrolling through your social media at the same time.

On the other hand: Pretending can be an effective “coping mechanism”. If your roommate, partner, or child starts unloading the dramatised events of the day on you, pretending may be a way to deal with that 😉

There are better, more respectful ways to deal with a situation like that of course: Just say now is not the time, or pay attention for a few minutes.

If the speaker just wants to vent, pretending to listen can be fine. The fact that the person can vent to someone, is more important than what is being said.

If you are the speaker and notice the listener is pretending. You can have a little bit of fun with them to indicate you are on to them and would like to connect more meaningfully. For example:

  • Keep talking, but switch the topic to something completely ridiculous. Personally, I enjoy changing to leprechauns or flying cars and jet packs, but keeping the intonation the same. 
  • Be silent. See how long it takes for the other person to realize you have stopped talking.
  • Better yet, ask the listener a question: “What do you think? Should I do it?”. The change in intonation (higher pitch towards the end of a question), probably wakes up the (pretending) listener, only to realize he/she has no clue what the question is about.

Level 3 – Selective listening

To listen selectively, means you are listening for specific insights into what the other person is saying.

This is useful in interviews or interrogations for example. I recently heard a story about how insurance agents would team up in pairs to interview people who are suspected of fraud. One agent would conduct the interview, the other would listen for contradictions in the story.

For creators and entrepreneurs, this level of listening is where we pay specific attention to what our clients or customers are telling us. Be careful to listen objectively and not look for confirmation of your own bias though.

A negative way of selective listening is what I call the “hostile takeover”. 

This is where the listener is, either consciously or unconsciously, latching onto your story with the goal of taking it over and divert the attention to themselves. 

The “Yeah, me too” or “I know what you mean, last week I was….”, etc. Next the speaker has been forced into listening to the other person talking about themselves.

The speaker did not get to deliver the message, got cut off and is left wondering what just happened. Sounds familiar?

Don’t confuse this with a conversation between people who just met for the first time. When a new relationship is being established, it is very common for both parties to start looking for similarities to indicate to each other they have something in common. That is a trust-creating mechanism. The difference between this and the ‘hostile takeover’ is that the listener confirms the similarities, but does not use that to take over the conversation entirely.

Level 4 – Attentive listening

Until this level, the listener does not connect with the speaker on a personal level. The next two levels of listening happen when the listener is taking a genuine interest in what the other person is saying.

Attentive listening happens when the listener pays attention to what is being said and engages with it with the goal to learn more about the person saying it.

On this level of listening, you make eye contact, start making (unconscious) facial expressions, and your body language indicates you are engaged.

You show understanding and ask questions on the subject of the conversation to really understand what is being said.

In coaching I can use this, combined with questioning techniques, to gain insights in a persons view on the world or a specific situation the coachee is dealing with.

For creators and entrepreneurs, this level is where we start to really connect with our audience and customers (or other entrepreneurs). Not only are you getting valuable information, you are also showing a genuine interest in the other person. This builds trust.

On this level of listening (and the next), some listeners tend to want to go into “hero mode”. When genuinely connecting, the speaker may feel it is safe to open up and show a more personal, vulnerable side. A listener in “hero mode” feels compelled to help. They may start providing solutions for what they are assuming is a problem for the speaker.

While admirable, this is not necessarily the right thing to do. It is very easy for a listener in “hero mode” to ‘fill in’ the mental gaps in the speakers story with their own assumptions. 

Also, the fact that the listener is connecting the the speakers story, does not mean help is needed or wanted.

All it means is that the listener is aware of the fact that he/she is genuinely listening. This level of listening is where listening also means “asking questions” to keep the conversation going.

Level 5- Empathetic listening

On this level of listening, you, the listener, connects on an empathetic level with the speaker. You immerse yourself in the story and become aware of the speakers feelings and emotions in yourself. These are mirror neurons at work. This is where synergy arises.

Connecting with someone on this level can feel very special. You both “get” it. Note that this does not mean, everybody involved has to agree. Empathetic listening means the other person feels heard and seen.

How to best use 5 levels of listening to connect with anyone
Attentive and Empathetic listening require the listener to be fully present and engaged.

Now what?

Most of our listening and communication during the day, happens on the first three levels of listening. In those situations, listening is mostly functional.

It is entirely possible to switch levels of listening during a conversation. But it is not possible to go from ignoring (level 1) to a deep personal connection (level 5), in one leap.

The last two levels are where the real personal connection starts to happen. They also take a lot more focus and thus energy to do well. There is simply no way to connect with another person on a personal and emotional level without being fully present and engaged.

Mastering these five levels of listening is a very valuable skill. Not just for coaches, but for everybody. 

As creators and entrepreneurs, this helps us tremendously when connecting with our audience for example.

These levels of listening, not only happen in synchronous 1:1 conversations but also in asynchronous online communication such as e-mail, comment sections, and social media.

Being able to ignore trolls in the comment section of your blog or youtube channel, is a great skill to keep your sanity. But being able to dig deeper into the values, norms, and convictions of your audience is essential in order to understand how to best serve them.

How to master this skill

Experiencing a realtime conversation on this meta-level, is difficult at first. As in all skilll development: practice makes perfect. Maybe try this at home with your partner first, to become aware of the levels you and your partner are listening on. Then try to switch levels if possible and functional.

Another great way to “practice” can be to observe conversations of others. Interviews are a great way to observe. 

The goal is not to always strive for the highest possible level of connection, but for the appropriate one for the given situation and goal of the conversation (if there is one). 

Listen wholly, but be selective in your choices to engage and on what level.

Another relevant article: Learn these 3 levels of connection and drastically improve your communication skills.

Please share your personal experiences with these levels of listening with me by sending me an e-mail.

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