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

By |August 13, 2020

This blog was originally published on 5/14/2018 and updated on 8/13/2020.

Most people who think they are good listeners underperform—by as much as 60 percent, in fact, according to some research. It turns out that overconfidence actually impedes their success. 

Being too confident actually prevents you from truly understanding the motivation of the other side, which prevents you from being able to use Tactical Empathy™ to get the outcomes you’re going for. 


Truth be told, nothing puts a relationship in jeopardy faster than poor listening. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking to your husband, wife, son, daughter, boss, or subordinate. People simply do not take a long time to estimate your commitment to listening—especially since a good deal of communication is nonverbal and wrapped up in physical syntax and delivery. Suffice it to say that it is not easy to convince someone you’re listening when in fact you are not.

So why do most people who think they are good listeners underperform? It’s because most don’t have the communication skills to recognize that there are actually five levels to listening, which we’ll explore next.

Level 1: Listening for the Gist

The first level of listening is intermittent listening. Here, you’re simply listening for long enough to get the gist of what the other side is saying. When you’ve got the basic idea, your ears shut off and refocus on your internal voice, which is formulating a reaction based on your worldview.

Though you might not articulate this reaction, you’re engaged in an internal dialogue about how what is being said doesn’t line up with your logic.

Level 2: Listening to Rebut

At the next level, you’re not practicing active listening. You’re listening to rebut. 

This is the stage at which you listen for long enough to understand the incoming message until it hits the trigger (i.e., something in the statement or phrase that you can argue against or rebut).

When you hear a trigger, you just wait for the other side to shut up for long enough so you can tell them why their position is faulty and, by extension, how much smarter you are than they are.

These enthusiastic replies undermine communication and the entire relationship. Interjecting with a quick response is a clear indication that you are not listening. How could you be? At this level, you’re focusing on your agenda at the expense of theirs, and it’s obvious.

Level 3: Listening for Logic

The third level involves using inference to try to pin down the internal logic of what is being said—if such logic exists.

If this is the other side’s worldview, their conclusion, or their judgment, why does it make sense to them?

It’s the first step toward truly understanding whom you’re negotiating with.

Level 4: Listening for Emotion

At the fourth level, you’re listening for any emotions or issues that may be driving their argument. These emotions or issues may or may not make sense to you. But at this level, you recognize their significance as the other side talks about what’s important to them.

When it’s your turn to respond, you might decide to use Labels™ to identify the unstated emotions or issues you believe are influencing what they have to say. 

For example, if your counterpart gives you an energetic response to your statement, you might say something like this—It seems like you’re very passionate about this deal—in hopes that the other side will reveal additional information.

Level 5: Listening for Their Point of View

This is where you become a great listener. It’s truly the next level where you listen for what the other side’s argument says about who they are in the world, using Tactical Empathy to do everything you can to see things from their perspective.

This communication skill is how you filter your counterpart’s emotion and logic through a prism of empathy, and it’s what you should try to do every time you sit down at the table.

Here, it’s all about getting beyond the cursory level of understanding to a deeper appreciation of their worldview. If you don’t understand where your counterpart is coming from, you don’t really understand them at all—making it that much less likely you’ll strike the deal you have in mind.

If you don’t understand the other side, you will never influence them. It’s that simple.

Though it’s difficult to maintain this level of listening every waking moment of every day, you need to be ready and willing to get here when the situation warrants it.

Now that you know how to be a better listener, it’s time to learn more about the person sitting across the table. Check out our free guide, Three Negotiator Types, to quickly figure out if you’re dealing with an analyst, an assertive, or an accommodator.

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