5 levels of listening and communication

Listening would seem to be such a natural thing to do.

Or is it?


The truth is that there is much more to listening than you might at first think.

Although we are taught from a young age how to speak, we are never really taught in life or school how to listen. One of the problems with listening is when you're doing a bad job of it, you're invariably one of the last to know.

I work as a psychiatrist, which basically means I get paid to listen carefully. But I can find listening hard at times- and especially at home (just ask my wife and children!).

Jesus in the Gospels, when he gives the famous parable of the sower,uses the phrase 'he who has ears to hear, let him hear.' In the Message version of the  Bible that is translated as, 'Are you listening, really listening?'Listening is not easy. And there is, according to Jesus, a link between listening and spiritual maturity.

It has been helpfully pointed out that there are 5 levels of listening.

Level 1 is the most basic level, and that is not listening at all, but ignoring. Why might I do that? Because if I did, if I really listened to you then I might have to change the way I look at you. I might have to come out of my comfort zone and I don't want to do that. How many problems in the world, at home and between nations are caused by a lack of really listening and talking past each other?

The 2nd level is what I have been guilty of at home, and that is pretend listening. We are distracted, our mind is elsewhere. That is so common in our media dominated world where technology enables us to be only partially attentive to what is going on around us.

The 3rd level is selective listening- we pick out the bits that we think are relevant. Sometimes that  can be life changing. A friend of mine went to the doctor saying he was not feeling right with repeated headaches. Maybe he was just another patient with migraine. But he also mentioned that he had been waking up in the morning with headaches, vomiting and he did not like bright lights. His neck was stiff and he had a rash. The doctor carefully selected those points from his history and rushed him to hospital to have a diagnosis of meningitis confirmed. That is the positive side of selective listening. The negative side of selective listening is that it can also be a form of control and manipulation of others.

The fourth level is attentive listening. It is listening to all the words that are said with all of your attention. The doctor who saw my friend moved from selective listening to attentive listening. But there is much more to communication than that. A famous study by the psychologist Albert Mehrabian attributes the actual words spoken to only 7% of communication, with tone of voice (38%) and body language (55%) making up the rest. To illustrate that think of the number of possible meanings of the phrase, "I never said you took the car." Depending on which word is emphasised the meaning of the sentence can change dramatically.

The fifth and final level is empathic listening. That is going beyond the words to the heart and feelings that lie behind the words. As the little child said to his distracted father, 'Daddy listen to me with your eyes."

To really listen to someone is the most affirmative and life changing things you can do. It is a vital skill to be learnt.

What are your thoughts and comments about listening and communication? 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “5 levels of listening and communication

  1. Hi Sunil
    Thank you for this insightful article. I am sure anyone in a position of leadership has spent time wondering how much of what he has been saying is taken in by the audience. The converse is also true – anyone looking up to a leader wants to know whether the leader has really been listening to his views.
    A Google search of the line ‘I have listened to you’ returns 152,000,000 hits, with the top one quoting Barack Obama in his victory speech – “Whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you. I have learned from you. And you’ve made me a better president.”
    In 1 Samuel 12 v 1, in response to the Israelites’ request for an earthly king, the prophet Samuel said, “I have listened to everything you said to me and have set a king over you”.
    Perhaps another way of gauging whether a person is really listening is to look at the actions which arise as a consequence of that listening. Both President Obama and Samuel listened to the people; one said he has become a better leader for it, the other said he has done something about it. One change is internal, the other is external. The same could be said for us; if we listen well enough there will definitely be changes in our life (hopefully positive ones!).

    • Thank you for your comments Mei Ling.
      Yes truly listening to someone shows respect to that person. We don’t necessarily have to agree with them, but it does demonstrate we value them as a human being.