The 6 Levels of Listening are simple steps you can follow to be a better listener. The steps build on each other and lead to increasingly effective and connected conversations. If you follow all six steps, you’ll have powerful, connected, collaborative and helpful conversations.

Summary by The World of Work Project

How to be a Better Listener

According to work done by Zenger and Folkman, good listeners are more engaged and active in conversations than many people expect. They tend to be intentional, ask helpful questions and connect with the speaker. As well as doing these things, they’re mindful of the level of listening they bring to the conversation.

The 6 Levels of Listening

To be a good listener you need to be intentional in your approach to conversation and listening. This often involves being mindful and paying attention. To think about how you can be more “in the moment”, it’s helpful to consider the 6 levels of listening. Each of these levels builds on the level before.

The higher the level of listening you bring to a conversation, the more connected and effective of a listener you will be.

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Level 1

A desk with an open laptop. The 6 Levels of Listening say to create a safe environment and remove distractions.
Create a safe environment and clear away distractions!

The first of the six levels of listening is the most basic. At this stage you need to make sure that you create a safe environment for the conversation to take place in. The goal is to make it feel safe for people to discuss difficult or complex issues.

You can do this by adjusting your environment and my choosing the mindset that you’ll bring into the conversation. Your body language, tone and use of conversation to soften the interaction can all help.

Level 2

The second level of listening involves clearing away all the distractions that you both might have in the conversation. This includes things like putting phones away and making sure laptops are closed. The purpose is to help make sure you’re fully focused on the speaker.

Level 3

The third of the six levels of listening is seeking to understand the substance of what the speaker is saying. This is about paying attention and asking questions that really help you understand the details of what the person is speaking about. At this stage you should also be playing back what you’ve heard to validate your understanding.

If you do this level well, you’ll have real clarity over the subject you’re discussing. In addition, the person you’re speaking to will know you’re paying attention and be confident you understand them.

Level 4

hands gesticulating. The 4th of the 6 Levels of Listening focuses on body language.
We communicate a lot with our hands

Listening at level four involves going beyond the substance of the conversation and starting to look for deeper meanings. At this stage you should be paying attention not to the words used, but to tone, body-language and other signals. Being mindful of these signals is a great way to pick up nuance in conversation.

Level 5

The fifth of the six levels of listening involves understanding and acknowledging feelings and emotions. At this stage the listener may ask questions that explore emotions and feelings and will start to empathize with the listener.

When exploring feelings and emotions, it’s important to acknowledge them in a non-judgemental way. The person you’re speaking to should feel heard and understood if you do this stage well. In addition, you’ll probably build trust and connection through meaningful conversations like this.

Level 6

The last of the six levels of listening is about looking at things from a new perspective. At this stage you should be asking questions that help the speak re-frame or re-imagine the situation. You can do this through the use of powerful coaching questions.

A crystal ball. The last of the 6 levels of listening suggests finding a new perspective.
Find a new perspecitve

Learning More

Listening and communication more broadly are interesting topics, and hugely important in the world of work. We think that Otto Scharmer’s 4 levels of listening might be our favorite way to think about listening. You might also enjoy the six facets of effective 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 in these 6 levels of listening is related to 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.

Our Podcast

Our Podcast is a great way to learn more about hundreds of fascinating topics from around the world of work.

The six levels of listening detailed in this post came from an HBR article by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman: “What Great Listeners Actually Do”.

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