When you say you’re listening, which type of listening are you really practicing? Of the five types, there’s only one that that’s the kind of deep listening that helps you resolve conflict better, be more persuasive, and strengthen the personal or business relationship.
I once saw Stephen Covey speak about the types of listening. He described a listening continuum that runs from ignoring all the way over on the left, to pretend listening, then selective listening, then attentive listening, and finally to empathic listening on the right.
The first four types of listening
Ignoring doesn’t sound like listening at all, but we recognize it when we’re on the ignored end of it: The other person continuing to type while we’re speaking, or checking their phone multiple times during dinner conversation.
Pretend listening is a patronizing form of listening. Really, we’re just waiting to speak. Very little of what they say is actually registering and we don’t really care what’s on their mind.
Selective listening is listening for the things that will serve us — listening for the holes in their argument, perhaps, or for other things we can use to promote our own position or point of view.
Attentive listening is listening so we can do something with what we just heard, like giving advice. We’re paying attention but primarily to feel good about our good listening or our good advice.
Covey drew a vertical line between attentive listening and the fifth type, empathic listening. Everything to the left of that line, he said, is listening from within our own frame of reference. That’s the point of view from which we listen most of the time.
Only empathic listening, to the right of Covey’s line on the continuum, is listening from within the other person’s frame of reference.
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. And during conflict, empathic listening is a very rare animal.
Empathic listening is learnable. It takes no special skill, just a very specific desire: To see things the way they see them, even if we don’t want to or don’t agree with them.