The Three Levels of Listening

Listening-dogRecently I attended the training ‘Coaching Agile Teams’ provided by Michael Spayd and Michael Hamman. During this excellent 3-day course a variety of useful models were introduced. In this blog post I’ll share the ‘three levels of listening’. I’ll explain the theory combined with my personal experiences.

As a human being, the ability to listen to another person is quite important. As a coach it’s crucial. Coaches should be able to carefully listen to what is said, but also that what isn’t said. They should know when and how to use powerful, open questions. And they should be comfortable with silence. The silence offers the other person the opportunity for reflection. Reflection combined with powerful question can result in unforeseen valuable insights.

Some quotes that emphasise the importance of listening are:

  • “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” – Bryant H. McGill
  • “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” – M. Scott Peck
  • “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen R. Covey

The book ‘Co-active Coaching[1]‘ contains a chapter about the three levels of listening. I’ll describe the three levels in a nutshell. Of course it’s recommended to read the original chapter if you want the full context.

Level 1: Internal Listening

It’s all about my thoughts, my judgments, my feelings, and my expertise

When a person listens at level 1, they are actually listening to the sound of their own inner voice. That’s where their attention is. Everything the speaker says is met with some version of “how does this affect me?[2]” We interpret words in our own way and our own context. You might hear the other person talk, but you’re continuously connecting the words to your own experiences, opinions, judgments, feelings etc.

Your inner voice says things like:

  • “Aha, he’s talking about Kanban, that’s what I find interesting too. Let’s see if I can use it at my customer.”
  • “Oh no, he’s again talking about the same Scrum pitfalls. I already know where this is going.”
  • “This conversation is starting to bore me.”
  • “Hey, I know that person behind him…”
  • “………….. uhm what did he just say?

Personally my biggest pitfall is my enthusiasm when talking about topics that interest me. My mind wanders off and starts to think of all the possibilities I could apply into my own situation. From this moment on I only notice some keywords the other person is mentioning, missing the actual purpose of the conversation. Another pitfall is trying to speed up the conversation (in my mind) by making assumptions. This especially happens when I talk about topics I’m familiar with. “He’s probably going to say <…>, that gives me the opportunity to think about something else in the meantime.” This might end up in a terrible conversation when your assumptions are wrong.

Is listening at level 1 always wrong? No, definitely not. Being aware of your own needs, feelings and opinions is important. In the same way, it’s also important that the coachee is listening at level 1; it’s about their lives, what they want, where they are and where they want to go. But when you have a conversation as a coach, you should always try to listen at level 2.

Level 2: Focused Listening

Hard-wired connection to other, lose awareness of outside world

Listening at level 2 is all about focus. The book ‘Co-active Coaching’ gives an example of a laser, from coach to client. All of the attention is directed in one way. At level 2 you really listen intently to every word and nuance in the conversation. You should try to ignore your inner dialogue. This will only distract you from truly listening. You feel the flow of the conversation and are focused on what is really said. You interpret the words in the context of the other person.

During the training we practiced this a lot. One situation that struck me most was a conversation in which I really tried to be a level 2. What happened was that I used powerful questions, tried to be comfortable with silence and really gave all attention to the other person. During the retrospective my partner complimented me for the great conversation we’ve had. He had the feeling I really listened to me and offered him some new insights. But the ‘funny’ part was that I couldn’t actually remember the details of the conversation… I completely forget what the other person was talking about. But than again, coaching isn’t about the content, it’s about offering someone else new insights and helping them getting to the next level.

Personally I’ve noticed that I’m only able to listen at level 2 when I’ve got an empty mind. Therefore I apply some of the following practices before a coaching conversation:

  • I write down everything that’s on my mind and isn’t relevant for the conversation;
  • I do some kind of meditation; this might also be a 10 minute walk outside the office;
  • I prevent having an intense meeting right before the coaching conversation. When this does happen, the previous part becomes relevant: do some kind of meditation.

In order for coaching to be as effective as possible, coaches need to be able to coach at level 2. And then they need to add the ability to listen at level 3.

Level 3: Global Listening

Soft focus on other, aware of whole environment, including your own intuition

At level 3 listening you are aware of the energy between you and others. It’s about being aware of the environment without decreasing the quality of the conversation. You feel how the energy is changing; you perceive the emotion, body language, gestures and tones used by the speaker. Coaches learn to listen with this soft focus, in order to pick up as much information as possible about the underlying impact in the moment[3].

During the training we didn’t cover this part. Trying to listen at level 2 was difficult enough. I can give two examples in which I (think to) experience level 3 listening:

  • When I’m giving training I can sense the energy level of the group. I know when a topic is interesting and feel when it’s time for a break.
  • When I’m having a conversation in a crowded restaurant, I’m able to absorb the environment without it being a disturbing factor. On the contrary, I find it more difficult to focus in a quiet room with only the other person in it.


Mastering the three levels of listening is a crucial condition for every coach. The most effective coaching takes place when the coach is at level 2 and 3. Sure, you will sometimes fall back into level 1 listening. And probably this is done with the best intentions of helping the other person. Noticing whenever you’re at level 1 and knowing how to return to level 2 or 3 is a skill that takes a lot of patience and practice. After I’ve participated the training I’m practicing it every day and hopefully improving with small steps.

To end with a quote of Michael Spayd: “listening is also a form of intervention”. And probably it’s the most powerful and sustainable one!

What’s your experience with these levels of listening? I would love to hear your thoughts!

[1] Co-active Coaching by Henry & Karen Kimsey-House
[2] Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins

One thought to “The Three Levels of Listening”

  1. All these levels of ‘listening’ must be practiced in reading in this digital era. We the people communicate via email, chat, blog etc. Listening is not just for the benefit of the other person but also for my benefit. Same way reading is also for my benefit in addition to benefit others.

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