The Ultimate Guide To ACTIVE LISTENING

Amy Strom_Research_PaperResearch Paper By Amy Strom
(Transformational Leadership Coach, UNITED STATES)

Listening- Levels of listening and the skill of listening


The word listening is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a verb: to pay attention to sound: to hear something with thoughtful attention.

In the realm of coaching, listening to the client is one of the most important roles of being a coach.  Active listening, as defined by  ICA Active Listening Marker is the ability to focus completely on what the client is saying and is not saying, to understand the meaning of what is said in the context of the client’s desires, and to support the client self-expression.

How does one combine the skill of listening to sound with the art of hearing with thoughtful attention?  How does one become a better listener? How does one become better at listening for what is not being said? This paper is about understanding deeper levels of listening to enable a coach to enhance their ability in actively listening to their client.

The Art of Listening

In Douglas V.Steer’s book  titled On Listening to Another, hesitates, “To “listen” another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest services that any human being ever performs for another”    As a coach, to be able to provide that level of service to your client is the goal in listening.

Steer goes on to describe “…if you are listening only to be able to provide and give your own opinion…. you are only listening with your outer ear…In this situation, there is no real listening.”     If we only listen to the words said, we miss a deeper unconscious meaning that is at work.  Listening, not for self-understanding, but for the sake of connecting to the speaker, for awareness of their tone, pace, and word choices enables a deeper, more meaningful experience between the listener and the speaker.

For the client to feel that more meaningful connection with their coach, to feel truly heard and not judged, enables a sense for the client to speak openly, freely.  A coach, listening at that level, not just hearing sounds, can invite the client to explore without leading.  Being able to stay with the client, where they are, and go with them where they want to go, just by listening on a deeper level, deeper than just listening to sound and attaching meaning.

The Ultimate Guide To ACTIVE LISTENINGLevels of Listening

When I Googled the words, levels of listening, over 27 pages of results appeared.  I refined my search to those who have published works defining types of listening as well as practices to implement to increase one’s effective listening skill, beyond just hearing sounds.

Senior lecturer at MIT, C. Otto Scharmer describes four levels of listening in his book, Theory U:

  1. Downloading-reconfirming your own opinions and judgments
  2. Factual Listening-being able to be different then what you expected (open mind)
  3. Empathic Listening-seeing through the eyes of others (open heart)
  4. Generative Listening-connecting with emerging future possibilities (open will)

In understanding these 4 levels as they apply to active listening, there is a direct correlation to helping to explore the speaker’s emotions, behaviors, and perceptions.  All levels of listening are valuable.  All levels serve their purpose.  The awareness of balance for each level will help the listener with not over empathizing or solving for the speaker.

In terms of actively listening to a client, coaches who can listen at the generative level, are listening as the client begins to reveal their future self.  Scharmer states, “The coach when listening at this level, don’t see the client in terms of their past, they see them in terms of their future highest possibilities.”  Their questions help the client move forward towards what they can become and help them explore how to achieve their goals.

In an article written by Wayne Davis, VP Talent, and Development for England Logistics, he points out that the word listen has the same letters as the word silent.    In coaching sessions, we are taught, clients should do most of the talking.  To be a good listener, one needs to be silent both internally and externally.

Davis refers to  Stephen Covey’s 5 levels of listening in his article:

  1. Ignoring-expend zero effort to listen
  2. Pretending-appearance of listening (until we are asked a direct question and we are caught for not having heard what was being said)
  3. Selective Listening- hear part of the message, this can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding
  4. Attentive listening-includes thinking to understand, reflecting, and rephrasing. The speaker feels the listener is engaged and interested
  5. Empathic Listening-We actively pushes our own perspective out of our mind and heart and instead try to walk with them, see as they see, and feel as they feel.

In looking at these defined levels, a coach would want to be listening at levels 4 and 5 with their clients, attentive listening as well as empathically listening.  It should go without saying, to be listening at levels 1, 2, or 3 with a client would not be good habits for a coach.    “True listening is rare and invaluable.”  Clients come to coaching with an expectation their coach will be listening at a level that helps them feel heard and understood right where they are.

A third example of defined levels of listening is by Wendy Hanson of Better Management, her article, The Three Levels of Listening, define each as:

  1. Level 1 -the focus is on me
  2. Level 2 -the focus is on the other person, you are fully present, listening with curiosity
  3. Level 3 -focus on the energy and use all your senses

As these 3 levels are defined, a coach would be wanting to be listening in both levels 2 and 3, focusing on the client and what they are saying, while also noticing energy and emotions.  It’s that level of awareness around energy and senses that a coach can utilize while listening to clients to help them help themselves to move forward.

In these different, yet similar defined levels of listening, you can stop and reflect on what levels of listening to you do in different situations.  Listening involves hearing sounds, the skill of listening involves more than just the sounds, it includes suspending your internal focus of yourself, to hear another, to not listen to respond but to listen and be curious about what is behind the sound.  A coach practices active listening, which would be the higher levels as defined in each grouping.

Developing Stronger Listening Skills

Most people do not listen with the intent to learn and understand. They listen with the intent to reply. They are either speaking or preparing to speak. – Stephen Covey

The good news is there are ways to help develop your listening skills ability in both professional and personal lives.  With the awareness and understanding that there are different levels of listening, being aware of which level you are listening in, can be a good place to start in increasing your listening skills.

To better increase your general listening skills, start by just noticing what type of listening you are doing in a moment, maybe it is during a  one on one with a colleague, a team meeting you are in, or in a conversation with your significant other.   Are you listening, paying attention? Are you distracted? Are you listening for facts- downloading, selectively listening?  Once you’ve noticed, try shifting to a higher level.  Let go of internal thoughts and focus your attention on them and what they are saying.  Quiet the thoughts generated in your mind and listen to hear rather than respond.

From an article written by Matthew Jones, he describes three things to stop doing while listening to become a better listener in general. They are:

  1. Stop evaluating what others are saying.
  2. Stop formulating your opinion about what the other person is saying
  3. Stop waiting for the other person to stop talking so you can give your opinion.

When you are doing one or all three of these things, you aren’t listening. You’re judging, your missing what might be being said at the moment, and or you create missed opportunities for connections.  In coaching, if you are doing these things, you aren’t actively listening to your client.

Coaches’ listening skills need to develop to enable them to step beyond their own thoughts and reactions, to focus and listen to the client’s thoughts and emotions and help move them through what they may not be able to see.  This active listening is one of the ICF core competencies.

The book The Heart of Laser-Focused Coaching points out that it is natural for our minds to wander and drive our attention away from our clients. We hear a comment, relate to it and suddenly we are listening to our own thoughts.    We must learn to notice our wandering thoughts and refocus our attention back to listening to the client.  To be able to do this, a coach needs to increase their skill in the higher levels of listening.

In applying Scharmer’s 4 levels of listening in a coaching situation, moving from downloading to factual listening involves moving your attention from your inner voice to actually listening to the person in front of you. This helps open what is being said.  To move from factual listening to empathetic listening, you move from your mind to a bigger mind that expands and allows for different perspectives, your client’s perspective.  In coaching, this is the active listening you are doing with your client.  Staying with them and their thoughts and being curious with them.  Moving from empathetic listening to generative brings that openness for what will emerge.  The coach has actively listened to what the client has been sharing, the coach holds space for the client to discover new awareness to be used in accomplishing their goals.

Davis’ highest level of listening practices actively pushing our own perspective out of our mind and heart and instead try to walk with the client, see as they see and feel as they feel.  Listening with empathy, while maintaining a balance.  If a person begins to over empathize, it indicates they are back in their own perspective their own feelings, and not with the speaker’s mind.

Hanson’s level 3 of listening engages recognizing energy and all senses around you.  In actively listening with a client, their tone, pace, word choice, and emotions all are important in understanding what they may not be saying. You are not just hearing sounds in these sessions, you are listening for the beyond, for what they may not be noticing.  You are listening for the environment surrounding them, that again, they may not be noticing.

Silence is a critical skill in actively listening also mentioned in The Heart of Laser-Focused Coaching.  After you’ve asked a question, you don’t want to disrupt your client’s thinking.  A coach needs to allow that quiet space for the client to think, consider, and respond.  Silence allows space for deeper understanding, for processing a new response just after one may have been given.  Sensing the client’s state of being just after speaking, allows the client space to catch up to what they have spoken.  A coach allows listening to happen for the client when they are silent.


Listening is complex, it is so much more than just defining to sound.  It’s more than our ears that listen and our mind that gives meaning.  Listening extends beyond sounds, what is said to what is not said. It is a skill, that can be improved and developed.  Understanding that there are different levels of listening and being aware of what level you are listening, can help you shift to a higher level, and become a better listener.  And when shared in a meaningful manner, can create a feeling of trust and compassion beyond measure between a coach and client.  It is the competency the feeds the other ICF competencies.  The better listener you become, the better your awareness, your questioning, and your curiosity are for the success and forward movement of your client.


Theory U, Leading from the Future as It Emerges by C. Otto Scharmer

Otto Scharmer on The Four Levels of Listening, Nov 23, 2015, YouTube site

“How are you Listening as a Leader” April 18 2018 by C. Otto Scharmer

Listening to Another by Douglas V. Steere

“Level of Listening” article by Wayne Davis July 23, 2018

“The Three Levels of Listening” article by Wendy Hanson, Better Manager  June 13, 2018

The Heart of Laser-Focused Coaching by Marion Franklin

“Want to be a better Listener article by Matthew Jones, INC

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