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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  1. Luci says

    I agree on this, Tammy. I, for one, would not make a good listener if i was told I had to stay neutral. Impartial, though, indicates that we leave our personal bias out of a situation – not sure I could do that either. Since we are people, almost everything we encounter is personal on some level or another and all we have to bring to the table is how we think and feel about the circumstance. I do believe in light of that, it should be our goal to find balance instead and strive to stay even – weighing all sides of the situation to the best of our abilities.

    • says

      Luci, I find it helpful not to think of impartiality as being without bias, but as being able to manage inevitable minor and major biases successfully (and knowing when we can’t). For instance, I, as an animal lover, may find myself mediating a case where I suddenly learn, mid-case, that one fellow is an avid deer hunter. Perhaps he even goes into vivid detail about gutting a deer. My question for myself is not “am I biased?” (because I am, at least as it pertains to deer hunting), but “Is it possible for my bias to get in the way of me serving him as well as I’m serving the other clients in this case?” That’s what my mental work must attend to and I must be ever-vigilant during that case. While I mostly solo mediate, one of the treasures of co-mediating is that we have someone else in the room to help keep us self-honest.

  2. Luci says

    Yes….Thus, seeking that balance I mentioned. It is a very tenuous situation, at best. All we can do is be aware and try and be as open and focused on the bigger picture as possible. Thanks, Tammy.