What everyone ought to know about the 3 levels of listening

Think about the first conversation you had today.

Do you remember what your partner in that conversation said, or do you just remember the “general tone” of the conversation? Did you just hear your partner, or did you actually listen to him?

Hearing and listening

Hearing is different than listening.

Hearing is the physical act of receiving sound and interpreting it using our brain, while listening is giving the other person our full attention, and understand him. The key difference between hearing and listening is the attention that we give, and the focus of that attention.

Most of the people don’t really listen when someone else speaks. Often times they would just nod and wait for their turn, while mentally preparing the next statement about themselves. Sometimes that statement might not even be related to the topic that the other person was speaking about.


Bob Proctor said that:

We hear with our ears. We listen with our emotions

When we listen, we emotionalize the information that we receive from our conversation partner. This immediately creates a certain bond between both speakers, which allows clearer interaction, sympathy, and understanding.

Listening, and paying attention to the speaker, is called active listening. Active listening is the act of listening to a person and making the conscious effort to not only hear the words that the speaker is saying, but actively try and understand the message and feelings that he is trying to convey.

The co-active coaching model distinguishes between 3 levels of listening:

  1. Level 1: internal listening
  2. Level 2: focused listening
  3. Level 3: global listening

Level 1: internal listening

At this level the listener is actually focusing its attention on himself. He listens to his own inner voice. All though the listener hears the words being said, He is constantly aware of his own thoughts, opinions and needs. The listener hears the words and tries to figure out (consciously or unconsciously) how is the data that is being spoken relevant to him.

While the conversation takes place, and the listener occasionally nods, he might be thinking inside:

  • “Wow, this happened to me yesterday!”
  • “Is he done speaking yet?”
  • “I’m so tired…”
  • “What can I say to sound smart?”

This form of listening is the most common one, and everybody does it. There are plenty of times when this form of listening is required. For example, when someone asks you how is your day going or when a waiter asks for your order in a restaurant. It’s perfectly okay to be aware of your own opinions and wants. After all it is your needs that the waiter wants to know about.

Level 2: focused listening

At this level, the attention is focused completely on the speaker.

The focus is so strong, that the listener blocks any outside interference. This enables the listener to pick up the nuances of the conversation, and understand the message that is being conveyed better.

Just think about two lovers seating together and speaking to each other. When they speak to each other, both their attention is focused completely on each other. When one speaks, the other listens intently. The attention is so focused, that the world around them doesn’t interfere with their conversation. They are very receptive to each other, and to the tiny gestures each one makes. That is level 2 listening.


Focused listening on the other

Level 3: global listening

This is the soft focus listening which focuses on the general atmosphere, and the energy in the surroundings. This awareness, or listening, enables the detection of the change in moods in the room and the shift of energy. It can detect the impact of what’s being said on the conversation partner, and add a whole new dimension to the conversation.

The phrase “there is an elephant in the room” is a great example to soft focus listening. Detecting the fact there is such an elephant, means that level 3 listening has been applied to detect that something is in the room, which no one’s speaking about. It is not necessary to know what that elephant is really about.

Performers such as comedians and actors regularly use this sort of listening to understand if their act is hitting its mark not. This sort of listening is also the one which make use of a person’s intuition rather than simply its ears.

So are you listening, or just hearing?

Each one of the levels we covered can be used by anyone. The great thing is, that you don’t need to learn anything to use any of the levels. You already know how to do it! Granted most of us don’t use level 2 or 3 regularly, but each and every one can train himself to consciously shift the focus of his own attention when in conversation, to understand the man standing in front us better, and really get what he is trying to say.

Robert McClosky, the famous children’s author once said:

I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

and he knew what he was talking about. Hearing our partner in conversation might make us understand the words he is saying, but it is only until we start listening, that we truly start understanding the people that we speak with.

Next time you speak with someone, try and see if you are just hearing him, or if you are truly listening. Let me know about it in the comments below!


8 thoughts on “What everyone ought to know about the 3 levels of listening

  1. Hi Ido great article, i never heard of the 3 levels of listening i feel like i am a good focused listener but what i found interesting was the internal listener level, never really thought about my inner voice before your article!!!
    make me think 🙂

    • ido

      Thanks Gino,
      We all have an inner voice, it just a question of how much we decide to listen to it.

  2. I think clarity comes from understanding, I now understand how to listen. Thank you for clearing that up for me!

    • ido

      One of the benefits of really listening is indeed gaining clarity on what the other side is really trying to say.
      Great to hear you liked it.

  3. Melody

    Great article! You are absolutely right that we often only use the first level of listening. Quite often the second and third level is left out even between married couples. This can lead to some pretty big arguments. I know from experience. 🙂

    As a musician and ensemble player listening on many different levels is so important. We don’t even realize what level we are using but we are certainly focused when we listen to each other and the director.

    Thanks for this. Great Read!

  4. hi Ido!
    I love this post! Love it! As a therapist and supervisor, I use all types of listening. I often use level 3 at the office. My office is in the back without a clear view of the waiting room. So I need to listen to detect changes in sounds and atmosphere to see if I should get out there because trouble is brewing! I feel it when something has changed. Or when I talk on the phone, it is important to detect small changes in the other person’s tone for example. My partner really struggles with level 2 and 3…. which drives me crazy. When one is focused on what they want to say next, it often feels like they are in fact not listening. So I began asking him to acknowledge that he had hear what I had said before saying whatever he was going to say next. Not quite successful yet but some progress….

    • ido

      Thanks Emily.
      Listening to someone on the phone is a perfect example of focused listening. Even without being physically present with the conversation partner, if you focus your attention on the speaker, you can understand the message a lot better. That is why we can sense that someone is smiling, or when someone is angry, over the phone. When we say “we can hear it in their voice”, we have actually focused our attention on speaker and received another piece of information.

  5. I love it, hearing is the simplest form of listening yet tons of people can still learn to master the skill! Lately at shows Ive been learning more and more about global listening, it really makes a difference when I feel my audience before I say things! Also, internal listening is also a big one in my book because it allows for personal development and growth as well as you learn from mistakes quicker!

    Great article! Matt TheDopestMatrix

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