The 5 types of listening

The 5 types of listening

When you say you’re listening, which type of listening are you really practicing?

Some years back I saw Stephen Covey speak and he talked about types of listening. He described a listening continuum that runs from ignoring all the way over on the left, to pretend listening (patronizing), then selective listening, then attentive listening, and finally to empathic listening on the right.

He drew a vertical line between attentive listening and empathic listening. Everything to the left of that line, he said, are types of listening that come from within our own frame of reference. Only empathic listening, to the right of the line, is listening from within the other person’s frame of reference.

I think of these types of listening a lot. How often do we act like we’re listening but we keep typing (ignoring)? How often do we act like we’re listening but really, we’re just waiting to speak (pretend listening)? How often do we listen in order to poke holes in their argument or find angles we can use to convince them (selective listening)? How often do we listen so we can give advice and feel good about ourselves (attentive listening)?

And how often do we listen with the pure desire to see it the way they see it, to step even briefly into their universe and take a look around? I suspect most of us don’t do it very often, probably not daily, perhaps not even weekly.

Maybe it’s because it feels dangerous, as though we might get trapped there. Maybe we fear that if they see us visiting they’ll mistake our visit for agreement. Maybe we so dislike them that we view their universe with distaste and don’t want to go anywhere near it. Maybe it’s because we’re in such a hurry or so busy that we don’t take the time or make the effort.

That’s too bad. Because when we’re in a state of conflict with someone important to us — perhaps a business relationship, perhaps a personal one — empathic listening is the kind we need. And we’ll be out of practice.

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