Beyond Empathy: The Four Levels of Listening and How You Can Listen Your Way to Innovation

Lately, we’ve been thinking about levels of listening—and how listening can generate real change, produce unexpected outcomes and foster real innovation. Creating real change is what we’re all here to do. We haven’t met a single person coming through the doors of The Design Gym who was willing to say, “yes, the status quo is awesome.”

So, since we all agree that creating change is what it’s all about, how do we do it?

Levels of Listening #0: Cosmetic Listening

We might call the lowest level of listening Cosmetic Listening (with no offense to the cosmetics industry). This is what we’re doing when someone asks, “Are you even listening?” and your brain can actually repeat back the last 3-7 words the person said. Some part of your brain is actually collecting words, but not their meaning. It’s pretend listening, and it doesn’t get you far. How do you move from Cosmetic listening into deeper levels of listening? Actually paying attention is a good first step.

Levels of Listening #1: Downloading

In this mode, you’re gathering facts, but selectively. You’re listening to double-check what you already know and not expecting any surprises.

Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler, once said, “I only wish I could find an institute that teaches people how to listen. Business people need to listen at least as much as they need to talk. Too many people fail to realize that real communication goes in both directions.”

If real communication is in both directions, downloading falls short by about 50 per cent. This type of listening is broken, because both sides are not very present. The talker is just talking. The listener is just listening, and both are in a habitual role. You also can’t use this information to foster innovation—the Henry Ford famous quote on no one said is a perfect example of that: “If I asked my users what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Firstly, neither Henry Ford nor Steve Jobs said that. But it’s true, in a way. If you ask someone to list all of the issues that they have with travel, they can give you a download. You might find some pain points that you can quickly fix and get to some improvements, but you won’t change the game.

How to move past the Downloading level of listening:

If you find yourself being a talker on the side of downloading, make sure you ask the listener what they want and need to hear. As a listener, you can break downloading with a step back from details to the big picture.

Levels of Listening #2: Conversational

In a conversation, we’re expected to respond to what we’re hearing with encouragement, opinions or advice. In fact, we’re mostly listening in order to respond. In a conversational mode of listening we try to notice new things, pick out details and be generally attentive. In a good conversation, both parties speak a fair amount and listen a fair amount. No one is keeping track until someone realizes that the other is taking advantage of the situation. Over time, we might be less likely to seek out conversations with those people who suck up all the attention in a conversation. Many people work pretty hard to be good conversationalists, so why should we try to move past this mode? If we’re seeking to really understand the other, we have to work to remove ourselves from the conversation. Don’t worry; in Level 4 you’ll get to reappear!

How to move past the Conversational level of listening:

Instead of a 50/50 split, try to talk 10 per cent of the time! Use silence selectively and don’t try to fill the pauses in the conversation. Once you slow down the pace a little, you can focus on the skills of the next level, Empathizing.

Levels of Listening #3: Empathizing

In our consulting work, we often find ourselves helping people practice this mode of listening. Empathic listening is listening for the place the other person is speaking from. It’s not about facts, but about experiencing/sensing an emotional connection. You go past the facts of Downloading Listening and begin to understand the context of the facts.

How to master Empathic Listening:

1. Pay attention

Give the speaker your undivided attention, and let distracting thoughts go. You may start to build counter arguments or piece things together—you should try to avoid those immediate reactions as much as possible. Focus on being present.

2. Slow down and be patient

Learn the power of the pause and don’t rush to fill the silence. Allow the other person an extra second to think. You’ll get more unexpected information from what comes after the silence than the follow up question you’re polishing in your head.

3. Defer judgment

Personal assumptions and filters can distort what we hear. Listen to learn, instead of to judge.

How to move past the Empathic level of listening:

Empathy implies that you’re over there and I’m here, listening to you. Empathy drives deeper into the heart of the matter, but empathy is just the start. You can use empathy to drive the desire to innovate and a reason to try—with stories of real people affected by real challenges—much more than dry facts. But in order to change how things are done, we need to be surprised. That’s the next mode of listening.

Levels of Listening #4: Emergent

In Empathic Listening, we’re paying attention, but we’re often cautioned to leave ourselves out of it. With mantras of the user is not like me, we listen intently to “get” their mental models.

Emergent Listening can feel a little like a hybrid of conversational and empathic listening, in that you ask about certain things because they are interesting, you begin to care, and you start to see pieces fitting together. Otto Scharmer of the Presencing Institute describes this sort of listening as, “Connecting to the emerging future—to a future possibility that links to your emerging self; to who you really are.”

In Emergent Listening, you enter a realm of possibility…and commitment to that possibility. That’s when we begin to form insights, not just about the present problem, but pathways to the future. We get excited about the possibilities!

Being an active listener requires active questioning.

The active questions you bring will allow for the person to whom you’re listening to uncover unexpected emergent possibilities and outcomes. We often think we have to solve problems when we’re listening to people; however, by asking better questions, we’re able to better understand the real issues.

We do an active listening exercise where one person shares a recent challenge and all the listener is allowed to say is: I’m hearing you say “_____.” Is that right? (where “____” is a reflective summary of what they heard). In only two minutes, the listening pairs get pretty deep into the heart of their challenge rapidly. Rather than fixing the problem, the root causes are getting uncovered.

(For more on this topic, see “5 Tips For Achieving Emergent Listening.”)

Where is your focus?

In listening levels 0-2, the focus is on yourself or the other self. I’m listening, you’re talking. There are facts. Check. Check. Check.

Level 3 is focused purely on the other. You put yourself aside and let the other speak deeply—they feel listened to.

Meanwhile, Level 4 is focused on the whole.

Listening and Innovation

All too often, we rush to solutioning. We see a problem and we want to get to a solid solution quickly. It’s hard to pump the brakes and ask, “are we solving the right problem?” Or, “What are possible unintended outcomes of a solution?”

Ideas and solutions need to be stretched out and listened to more deeply. We are always tempted to download the facts and get cracking on a solution. That kind of listening may solve the problem, but will never innovate on it.

Empathy is an essential first step to being a great innovator. The more deeply you listen, the deeper your insights for innovation. But Emergent Listening gets us back in the picture, actively participating in what those insights are and allowing us to be surprised by the possibilities.

Need some deeper listening and innovation at your organization?

Learn more about our Strategy and Innovation Consulting services that start by listening to the needs of your most important stakeholders—your leaders, your customers, and your employees.

The Design Gym
[email protected]

The Design Gym is a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot us a note at [email protected].

  • Sheila Reindl
    Posted at 15:29h, 04 August Reply

    I really appreciate your description of levels of listening in your post “GOING PAST EMPATHY: THE FOUR LEVELS OF LISTENING AND HOW YOU CAN LISTEN YOUR WAY TO INNOVATION.” I am really curious, is this a scheme you came up with on your own, or is it based on some more widely recognized/described distinctions? I and my spend our days listening to people and recently started to use the word “emergent” to describe the nature of the listening we do and the individual and group conversations we aim to have in our line of work. And then I set out to see who else was using that word, and I came upon your post, which is so helpful. So I’m eager to learn if there is a broader community of people who speak this language of emergent listening and what the history of the term and practice might be.

    Thanks you,

    Sheila Reindl

    • Andy
      Posted at 22:32h, 16 August Reply

      Hi Sheila, Thanks for your comment! We adapted the four levels from some other frameworks. Julie Starr in her book, The Coaching Manual, dives into the 4 levels of listening, referring to them as Cosmetic Listening, Conversational Listening, Active Listening, and Deep Listening. You can also see an overview here.

  • annie
    Posted at 22:02h, 09 November Reply

    as a new hired, a better listening is genuinely interested in helping me feel supported.

  • ElMaria Martinez
    Posted at 10:22h, 16 April Reply

    Thank you for this. I’ve always prided myself on being a good listener which helps me to be a problem solver. What I am taking from this article is this:

    All too often, we rush to solutioning. We see a problem and we want to get to a solid solution quickly. It’s hard to pump the brakes and ask, “are we solving the right problem?” Or, “What are possible unintended outcomes of a solution?”

    I want to solve problems but is it me just wanting to find a solution or is there really a solution, or the right solution? I will make a point to be more mindful to ‘pump the breaks’ before trying to hurry up and find a solution.

    Thank you again!

  • Sebastian C.
    Posted at 10:06h, 21 July Reply

    Hello, great article. Was curious if the two “level 2” labels were meant to be or if it is a typo and one is meant to be “level 3”.

    • Kelsye Gould
      Posted at 19:29h, 29 November Reply

      Thanks for catching that, Sebastian! Much appreciated.

  • Diane Kershner
    Posted at 10:28h, 03 August Reply

    Great REFRESHER for our busy workloads. We need to step back, pause, and ensure we are truly listening!

  • Rafael Mercado
    Posted at 16:05h, 05 October Reply

    It is interesting to learn the different types of listening and how to do it, no just to hear, but to listen.

  • Seth Malloy
    Posted at 17:56h, 01 November Reply

    This article was so good… and not in a condescending or snarky solutioning way! *Wink
    The explanations of the different levels of listening were insightful and I realized that I had been falling short in conversation, but the tools shared to reach higher levels of communication were excellent and easy to understand.

  • Alexander Mitic
    Posted at 19:06h, 17 December Reply

    I understand the need to listen in a manner that really addresses the speakers concerns because to often today, we are so overwhelmed with information and duties that we tend to multitask even when conversing with others. Thank you for your insight. I will be able to use this information to be a better listener.

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