How to Apply the Three Levels of Listening to Coaching
By Karen L. Bruns
Being able to use active listening skills in our day-to-day communication or in the social connections we make, adds so much more to the relationships we build be they in person or online. Poor listening in person or online is tantamount to skimming the email that has too many paragraphs to read in that particular moment. In this article, we will unpack the concept of the 3 levels of listening, and deepen the importance as it applies to coaching and for leaders.
The Art of Listening
As a world, we focus more on how to speak than how to listen and in this speedster style of multitasking and electronic communication we’ve either forgotten or never learned how to actively listen. Decades ago, before the invention of the television, there was radio. Whole families gathered around the radio and listened intently to what was being said so as not to miss a single detail. Today, and for the past 2.5 years, we’ve all been working online, and while various video communication tools are wonderful to try to bring people together, we can’t see the whole person and, in many cases, can’t see them at all because their video is off and so we often multitasking as we meet online, removing all chances to observe non-verbal communication. Add in that we aren’t actively listening, and we even lost the ability to pick up paraverbal communication.
The importance of listening in communication cannot be overstated, and still, there is a need to say it again and again. This is because people and coaches think they listen just fine. It’s just listening after all. We all do it every day, right? We do, and yet, we don’t all do it at the right level for the situation in which we are the listener. Listening is a complex skill. You read in the paragraph above that there can be many different levels of listening. As a new level is added, so too is a deeper level of nuance and complexity to the craft of listening. To listen at the level needed, it requires focus, it creates empathy, learning, reflective inquiry and problem solving to name a few of the skills developed with proper listening. Oh, how our world could be so much better, were we all taught active listening skills, true listening skills along with when to use which level of listening, in grade school, middle school, high school, and beyond. Think of the better parents we could be, the better partners, bosses, coworkers. The better connections we would make to other humans were we to become a better listener. So here you are, a budding or experienced coach, with active listening at the forefront of your skillset. As a coach, you have learned about the different levels of listening, maybe even seen several different articles on the topic, and you know it is important in your coach practice to understand how to use them. So why should you keep reading? Because we are going to share some practice suggestions for each of the three levels of listening addressed in this article.
3 Levels of Listening
Let’s address the elephant in the room; how many levels of listening? 3 levels of listening. Wait, what about articles that contend there to be 5 levels or 7 levels of listening for example. Certainly, there are many articles that expand beyond CTI’s 3. For this article, we will focus on just 3; internal, focused, and global. The Co-Active Training Institute (CTI) has identified 3 levels of listening and each level can be used in a certain way to obtain the most from communication. The three levels of listening as identified by CTI are:
- Level 1: Internal Listening, where we focus on ourselves, our experience, our opinions as they related to what’s being said.
- Level 2: Focused Listening, where we listen to the other person. Our thoughts do not enter into the conversation, but curiosity can.
- Level 3: Global Listening, where we listen to what isn’t being said; “body language, the inflections and tone of their voice, their pauses and hesitations.”
Level 1: Internal Listening – Focused on Self
Internal listening focuses on listening for rebuttal or reply. When we are internally listening, it means, we are bringing ourselves into the equation, comparing our own experiences or knowledge to the things the speaker is saying. Sometimes in our excitement we even find ourselves interrupting to share our experiences, which can sometimes be frustrating for the speaker. As listeners, we often find ourselves in level 1 listening when we multitask. It happens too if we are interrupted. I have had moments where I’m working and one of my adult children will call and ask if it’s a good time to talk. I’ll mutter sure, in a minute, and they begin with their story. A moment later I realize I’ve only been half-listening and need to ask them to repeat themselves. In my early days of coaching, I would find myself focusing on the coaching arc, concentrating more on what to say next, and miss really important things that were said. I was stuck in my own headspace. Using level 1 listening in coaching introduces the risk of creating misunderstandings. As a coach, level 1 listening can also pull us towards being tempted to solve the speaker’s problem instead of listening to them.
So, is level 1 listening all bad? No, there is a use for level 1 listening. For example, it can be useful in brainstorming; we hear someone’s partial idea, and our own experience builds upon their thoughts or experience. Another example where it can be useful is in helping someone to make a quick decision that isn’t life altering or super serious, like what restaurant to eat for dinner or buying more than one of something at the grocery store. When we level 1 listen, we are in our own minds, not with them. As a result, we are not wholly present. For coaching, we need to be wholly present, engaged with active listening at a level higher than level 1 if we are to hear that question that needs to be asked. Internal listening doesn’t serve the speaker (our client) well. In fact, it can seem that we are more focused on ourselves than on them during a conversation. The next time you have a coaching client, leave your experience and opinions in a drawer or on a shelf in a box. Our client is there to talk, we are there to listen for those questions that need to be asked. Remember, our client will share things with us if they trust us. Active listening builds trust. Trust opens our clients up to share. Get out of your own head.
Building Level 1 Listening Through Practice
The next time you find yourself in a brainstorming or problem-solving situation, allow your brain and ears to tap into that level 1 ability. Hear their ideas and allow your experience to build upon them, offering your opinions and ideas along the way.
Level 2: Focused Listening – Focused on the Other
Focused listening has our ears and mind focused on the speaker; what they are saying, how they are saying it. When we are focused listening, we are capable of deeper understanding and recognizing a need for empathy or may even feel empathy welling up within us. Focused listening or level 2 listening allows us to see what impact the experience we are hearing might have had on the person telling the story. Did this experience make them happy, sad, mad? This level of listening allows us to sense the essence of what they are saying. Focused listening is where we first see active listening, and where we aren’t bringing ourselves into the equation. Our experience or how we handled something similar isn’t relevant to them, it’s their story, not ours. We are listening to listen, not to rebut, we can hear what needs to be heard. When the conversation is a coaching session and we bring our level 2 listening, we are focused on them, and they can sense that. In coaching we call this presence, and when we are wholly present, we can see energy shifts that tell us that something is happening in the client. International Coach Federation defines active listening as: “Ability to focus completely on what the client is saying and is not saying, to understand the meaning of what is said in the context of the client’s desires, and to support client self-expression. Attends to the client and the client’s agenda and not to the coach’s agenda for the client.” Isn’t this what we are talking about? Clearly level 2 listening is where we need to be when we are coaching, not less.
Building Level 2 Listening Through Practice
The next time you find yourself headed into a 1 to 1 conversation or a team conversation, you might enjoy trying what I do. I settle myself and get into my coaching zone and I focus my ears and mind intently on my client’s words and body language. I invite curiosity into the conversation. Do the expressions on their face match the words coming from their mouth? If my brain still wants to have an opinion or want to share my experience, I quickly accept that it happened, give myself permission to be human and then get back to the business of listening. With time and practice you’ll get better.
Level 3: Global Listening – Focused on Context and the Energy
Global listening. If you’re new to the concept of global listening, you might think, “Wow, that sounds busy. How can one listen to everything all at once?” And if you are a seasoned professional who practices listening, you might remember saying that yourself in the beginning. A global listener can pick up on subtle cues included in the words of the speaker, such as a very subtle pause or a sigh that indicates any number of emotions like anything from tired to frustrated to weary to despair. Or perhaps they can hear a gentle inhale that other levels may mistake for just needing more oxygen while a global listener can hear the subtle unspoken request of ‘please explore this further, because I have no words.’ These global listening skills are what make a good coach a great coach. Being in tune with the presence of a person’s stature, the way they breathe, speak, sigh, exhale (yes, those last two are different and both can contain energy that tells a level 3 listener there is more behind them) can bring deeper presence to the coach and in doing so, deeper insight and awareness to the speaker.
Building Level 3 Listening Through Practice
The next time you are planning to practice with a coach or coach in the real world, take a moment to ground yourself before the session. If you’ve never done that, I invite you to try something I made up that works for me:
- Grab some sticky notes and a pen.
- Find a quiet spot where you can be alone and uninterrupted.
- Sit in a chair or on the floor if you choose and get comfortable.
- Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths.
- Find the busyness of your mind and tell it to rest, tell it that it will have its time later, in fact, later it can be the star of the show, but now you need it quieted. Then one by one, as the topics come to your mind clamoring to be first to get your attention, write them on a sticky note using one sticky note per topic. As you write it, tell it you have made a note and it will get its time later at a time of your choosing.
- When all topics have been noted, finish with a few deep breaths, and stretch a really good stretch.
- When you feel clear, you are ready to enter into your coaching conversation.
- Soon you’ll be able to clear these mental interruptions without the sticky notes.
Understanding the Levels of Listening with Examples
Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly shifting from one level of listening to another in many of our conversations. But for true, deep listening, the kind of listening that builds trust and relationship, we must try to switch only with levels 2 and 3. I remember when I first heard of the 3 levels of listening, my youngest son was about 18 at the time and still living at home, so I thought why not share these 3 levels of listening with him. Then one day I was at the stove making dinner, adding ingredients to my homemade pasta sauce when my son who was recently schooled in the three levels of listening approached me and asked if he could talk to me. As I continued to stir, he began to talk. Stir, add, stir, add, check the water for the pasta, check the bread in the oven, check the vegetables in the pot, almost done, yes, no, no not quite, vocalizing these words quietly under my breath. My son placed his hand on my arm, which drew my attention, and I realized I had been half listening to him and poorly at that. He said, “Mother, I would appreciate it if you would at least level 2 listen to me.” Of course, I apologized, stopped multitasking, and began to listen intently to him. I will never forget that moment.
How to Unlock Higher Levels of Listening in Coaching with Practice
Here’s the thing. We can read about levels of listening all day long. We can read about all the various levels people believe they have discovered. But unless we practice, we will not grow. It’s all about practice. Think about how you can incorporate each of the three levels of listening in your daily routine. Level 1 isn’t appropriate for coaching. If you are familiar with what coaching is and isn’t, you will know that coaching requires a higher level; so, focus on levels 2 & 3 if your aim is to become a better coach. Skilled focused and global listening is instrumental in building solid coaching skills. A great way to practice can be to find 2 fellow coaches and trade time to coach each other with the aim of listening at a higher level with one observer. Include switching between levels when it’s your turn to coach. See if your observer notices the switch as they might see a deepening of presence when shifting to level 3. Engage the use of powerful or open questions and note emotions that appear both on the surface and under the radar. If you are listening in level 3 your radar will pick up their subtle shift and when you transfer this skill to your actual clients, you will be blessing them with a skill needed to bring deep awareness and help move them forward.
Thanks for reading.
- England Logistics, 2018, The Levels of Listening England Logistics, August 21, 2022
- Erin Eatough, PhD, 2021, 7 types of listening that can change your life and work August 21, 2022
- Co-Active, 2021, Levels of Listening Co-Acative.com August 21, 2022
- International Coach Federation, (no publication date), ICF Core Competencies, August 21, 2022