The 5 Levels of Listening as a Leadership Tool

Explore how you can use Stephen Covey’s levels of listening to improve your own listening behaviors and habits.

It comes as no surprise that one of the most sincere forms of respect in the workplace is actually listening to what a peer has to say. Even the greatest employees and managers can improve their active listening skills to become better communicators.

The late American educator, businessman, keynote speaker, and author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey pointed out that there’s more to the art of listening than doing so or not. Covey’s theory is that there are five levels of listening: ignoring, pretending, selective listening, attentive listening, and empathetic listening. Each level represents the degree to which someone is listening to another person during a conversation. 

Read on to gain insight into why listening is important in leadership, learn the differences between each of Covey’s five listening levels, and explore the five ways that effective listening can make you a better leader. 

Why is listening important in leadership?

In the wise words of Stephen Covey, most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. Here are the five reasons listening is important in leadership: 

  • Increases trust: Listening creates an environment of trust. When you listen actively, you show your colleagues that you care about their thoughts and ideas. 
  • Motivates team members: When an employee feels heard, their motivation at work will likely increase, too. This motivation can also directly improve the employee experience
  • Helps in decision-making: Listening helps you better understand business demands and the needs of your clients and customers. When you actively listen, you learn all the information needed to make the best decisions for your team and company.  
  • Sets a good example for the team: Active listening is one of the best soft skills a leader can have. By being a great listener, your direct reports and teammates will want to follow in your footsteps. 
  • Drives innovation: When you listen actively, you ensure you take in as many good ideas as are being provided. This makes certain that you have all the information needed to move forward with new projects.

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The 5 levels of listening

1Ignoring 

The first of the five levels of listening is ignoring. At this level, we aren’t really listening at all; we’re making an effort to avoid the conversation entirely. Our body language reflects this behavior, too. Someone looking away while you’re speaking or making it known that they’re not paying attention to the words you’re saying is ignoring you. There are few situations where this level of listening is appropriate. In negative situations, this level can frustrate the person you’re speaking with and make their communication worse. For this reason, you should avoid ignoring people in the workplace.

2Pretend listening

Pretend listening is when we use body language or cues to show the other person that we’re engaged while we think about other things. For example, if your colleague is giving you important project details on a Zoom call while you nod and smile while simultaneously sending emails to your boss about something irrelevant, you’re probably pretend listening. If we pretend listen too much, we will eventually get caught by having to ask too many follow-up questions or by being unable to carry out a task without asking for the information we missed. 

3Selective listening 

Selective listening is a step in the right direction because it involves basic listening. While we show we’re listening through our body language, we only really hear the parts of the conversation that interest us and stop listening to the parts that don’t. The problem with this level is that selective listening can create misunderstandings when one person hears different parts of the conversation than the other. This level of listening causes challenges, too. If we only hear certain details needed to work towards major projects tasks, action items, or goals, we’re bound to get stuck. 

4Attentive listening 

Attentive listening means paying attention and concentrating on what is being said. At this level, we demonstrate active body language but also respond appropriately with our words. Unfortunately, this level of listening is still based upon relatability to our own experiences. At a minimum, this is the level we should seek to achieve in our daily interactions. You can listen attentively by using full eye contact and by reflecting and paraphrasing what the other person says during each conversation. 

5Empathetic listening

Empathetic listening is the gold standard. This is the level that all great leaders should strive for during conversations. At this level, we listen to understand the intent behind the message while responding appropriately. It requires the most mental and emotional energy because it forces us to focus on the other party’s reference using our ears, heart, and brain. This type of listening can push our perspective to new heights and help us form a response that matches the person we’re communicating with. 

5 ways effective listening can make you a better leader

1Listening increases your capacity as a leader

The best leaders have a growth mindset and are willing to learn from those around them. When you actively and empathetically participate in every conversation, you’re bound to learn from your peers and direct reports. Practicing your empathetic listening skills will help you gain the perspective needed to make great decisions, show up for your team, and implement regular feedback. 

“Most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.”

– Bernard M. Baruch, American financier and statesman

2Listening shows you care

Sometimes we underestimate the power of a listening ear. In 2020, Global Talent Trends found that LinkedIn identified empathy as a key business trend for the decade. When you truly listen, you show that you care about the other person’s thoughts and ideas. You also learn to empathize with their feelings. When you listen empathetically, the other party should be comfortable sharing as much about the topic at hand without feeling rushed to change the subject. Listening builds trust, better understanding, and increased respect, making it a fundamental skill for success. 

“To listen with empathy is the most important human skill.”

– Stephen Covey

3Listening helps you comprehend the situation and business

Listening will give you the knowledge to make the best decisions for your team, company, clients, and customers. Think about it: When you retain as many details as possible during every conversation, you’ll be able to flag potential issues earlier and build confidence in your ability to get a job done. You may even reduce errors in your work. When you listen empathetically, you can create effective strategies to deal with challenges, plan for the future, and move your business forward. 

4Listening gives you a vision of the reality on the ground 

Listening gives insight into your colleagues’ day-to-day realities. When your direct reports know they can speak openly about their challenges and successes, you’ll be able to manage your team and delegate tasks effectively. For example, when in the planning stages of a new project and intending to assign new action items, managers with empathetic leadership know exactly how their employees will feel about a revised or increased workload. 

5Listening is usually overlooked in the workplace

The average employee doesn’t view listening as a skill that will drive projects forward or get results for their company. However, having a team of excellent listeners can improve employee retention, experience, and overall satisfaction. 

In episode 81 of our Supermanagers podcast, Author of Leadership, Reinvented and The Burnout Gamble Hamza Khan explains that organizations regularly fail due to avoidance. When we avoid having difficult conversations, we make assumptions about our peers, their ideas, and their work. If you want to build better relationships at work, practicing your empathetic listening skills is a good place to start.  

“You need to cringe fast and cringe early, and sit down and have the tough conversations with people and seek to understand, to listen.”

Hamza Khan, Author

Parting advice 

In the wise words of Stephen Covey, “empathetic listening is powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with.” Rather than projecting our thoughts, motives, and interpretation on every situation, we can use our listening skills to understand another person’s point of view. 

Think twice the next time you exhibit passive ignoring behaviors or multitasking while your colleague shares important news with you. Assess your own listening skills by identifying which level of listening you use during your interactions at work and in your personal life. Aim to improve your listening skills until you practice empathetic listening during every conversation. Before you know it, you’d be making Stephen Covey himself proud with your new skills!


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About the author

Brier Cook

Brier is a communications professional and freelance content writer based in Ottawa. She currently works as an Engagement Strategy Advisor for Carleton University. She is passionate about using creative marketing to solve business challenges. In her spare time, she’s either reading fiction, trying out a new fitness class, playing guitar, or cooking a recipe from TikTok.

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