Otto Scharmer’s 4 Levels of Listening are a simple, positive way to help you get better at listening. They’re slightly different to some other levels of listening. The four levels are: Downloading, Factual, Empathic and Generative.

Summary by The World of Work Project

The 4 Levels of Listening

Otto Scharmer’s 4 levels of listening are Downloading, Factual Listening, Empathic Listening and Generative Listening. They are similar to other levels of listening in that as you progress, you pay more attention to the speaker and are more aligned to them and their goals.

A diagram showing the 4 Levels of Listening

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Level 1 – Downloading

The first of Otto Scharmer’s 4 levels of listening is Downloading.

At this level of listening all we are doing is looking for information to confirm what we already know or expect. It’s like we’re skimming the news to confirm our beliefs, or skimming some instructions to confirm we know what we’re doing.

We’re not really present at level 1. Our minds are occupied elsewhere. And this shows. The people we are speaking to can tell that we’re not really with them. This isn’t a nice way for them to feel. They’ll feel slightly ignored and perhaps disrespected.

Not only this, we’re also unlikely to actually learn much or have a productive conversation if were listening at this level.

Level 2 – Factual Listening

The second of Otto Scharmer’s 4 levels of listening is Factual Listening.

At this stage we’re no longer just listening for the things we already know. Instead, we’re focused on learning the facts we don’t already know. We’re keen to broaden our knowledge. We’re focused, inquiring and paying attention to the content of the conversation.

This level of listening can be very helpful, but it’s potentially somewhat inhuman. In some ways we are separating the facts in the conversation from the human being we are having the conversation with. We are not paying attention to their feelings or emotions, or the nuance of the conversation.

This may be fine, but it may not be a great conversation for the speaker. We may also miss important information that’s not embodied in facts. We might miss clues as to what is really happening, or how people feel about what’s being discussed.

Level 3 – Empathic Listening

The third of Otto Scharmer’s 4 levels of listening is Empathic Listening.

By the time we reach this level we are starting to connect with the person we are speaking to, not just the facts they bring. We’re moving beyond black and white statements, and starting to explore nuance, feelings and emotions related to them. Or even related to the wider circumstances we are in.

We achieve this in part through our mindset, in part through observation and in part through questioning. If we open our frame of thinking to include emotions, we can start to connect with the speaker on a more emotional level. We can put ourselves in their shoes and start to see things from their perspective. We should also align to their perspectives, while keeping the ability to provide friendly, constructive challenge.

When we do this we are using empathic listening. This gives us greater clarity over the situation. It also helps them feel understood, really listened to connected with us. In this space of safety, we can see increases in sharing and increasing insight and confidence to try new things.

At this level the experiences of both the speaker and the listener are improved.

Level 4 – Generative Listening

The fourth of Otto Scharmer’s 4 levels of listening is Generative Listening. This is where Otto goes further than many levels of listening, and brings greater clarity to what makes an excellent conversation.

At this stage the listener moves beyond connecting with the speaker. They start to connect with the core ideas of the conversation and their potential futures. They are fully focused on helping to bring the best possible future into being, and their ego and any other barriers they normally carry are dropped.

When speakers and listeners can align like this, in such a safe, optimistic, forward looking way, great things can be imagined. It’s possible to generate new ideas, and to find the energy and enthusiasm to start to bring them into reality.

Learning More

Listening and communication more broadly are interesting topics, and hugely important in the world of work. You might also enjoy the six facets of effective listening, the six levels of listening or this brief guide on how to be a better listener.

When it comes to body language, you might find Mehrabian’s work interesting. We also think the 7 C’s of communication are a helpful, simple tool.

A lot of what’s actually covered here crosses over with emotional intelligence. Of course, while it builds trust, really focusing like this can require some emotional labor.

You might enjoy our podcast on emotional intelligence below:

The World of Work Project View

There is a lot of advice on listening out there. And there are also many different versions of “levels of listening”. In all honesty, most of them are pretty basic. A lot of this boils down to having the discipline to actually pay attention and be on someone else’s agenda. When we’re at our best, most of us find it pretty easy to do this. Unfortunately, in the real world, we’re often run down, busy and thinking about other things.

In our view, one of the best ways to get better at listening is to actually focus on improving your space and wellbeing. It’s great to have a toolkit to follow, but if you don’t have the mental space and energy to follow it, then it’s pretty useless.

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The four levels detailed here come from work by Otto Scharmer. You can read more in this paper.

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