Better Meetings

Levels of Listening: A Guide to Becoming a Better Listener at Work

Listening is a critical skill for effective communication and collaboration in the workplace. However, not all listening is created equal. There are different levels of listening, ranging from basic to deep, active listening. In this comprehensive guide, we'll explore the various levels of listening, barriers to effective listening, and proven tips to become a better listener at work.

The Basic Levels of Listening

The most basic levels of listening involve hearing words spoken but not absorbing or retaining them. There are three basic levels:


This is essentially not listening at all, when you hear the words someone is saying but you don't process them. You may even pretend to listen by saying "uh-huh" periodically while thinking about something else entirely.

Pretend Listening

This refers to passively listening without retention. You hear the words but they go in one ear and out the other. You retain little information and cannot repeat back what was said.

Selective Listening

Selective listening is when you hear only certain information and tune out the rest. You pick and choose what to pay attention to based on what interests you or aligns with your existing views.

While these levels allow you to hear words, they limit understanding, retention, and connection. To fully understand a message, you need to go beyond basic levels.

Active Listening Levels

Active listening involves engaging with the speaker, processing information, and striving to understand their message. There are four key levels of active listening:

Focused Listening

With focused listening, you pay attention to the primary message and facts. You seek to understand the core ideas. However, you may miss nuances or details. You retain the gist but not an in-depth understanding.

Engaged Listening

Engaged listening means you make an effort to understand the full message. You focus not just on facts but listen for underlying emotions and subtleties. You provide verbal and non-verbal feedback like maintaining eye contact and nodding. Your retention increases as you put effort into understanding.

Reflective Listening

With reflective listening, you restate or reflect back what you heard in your own words. Reflecting shows the speaker you are attempting to understand their perspective. It also helps clarify anything you may have misunderstood.

Empathic Listening

This deepest level of listening involves striving to understand the speaker’s perspective, emotions, and needs. You “step into their shoes” and show emotional sensitivity. The focus is providing a supportive, judgement-free environment for open communication.

Mastering empathic, reflective, engaged, and focused listening leads to better understanding and more meaningful dialogue. But various barriers can get in the way of deep listening.

Barriers to Effective Listening

Many things can prevent effective communication and listening. Being aware of these barriers is the first step to overcoming them.

  • External Distractions - Ringing phones, loud conversations, background noises, and other sensory distractions make it hard to focus on the speaker. Multitasking during a conversation also limits retention.
  • Internal Distractions - Thinking about other topics, letting your mind wander, or rehearsing what you want to say next while the other person is still speaking all divert attention away from deep listening.
  • Judging and Rehearsing - Mentally critiquing or judging the speaker prevents empathic listening. Rehearsing your response can also divert focus.
  • Filters and Assumptions - Listening through the filter of your values, perspectives, priorities, and assumptions can distort understanding. We hear what fits our preexisting views.
  • Emotions - Strong emotions like anger, fear, anxiety, or defensiveness can block the ability to listen openly without judgement or mentally preparing a counter-argument.
  • Fatigue and Stress - Listening takes energy. When you’re tired or overwhelmed, it’s harder to stay focused. Minor distractions seem amplified.
  • Lack of Common Ground - Not sharing common experiences, backgrounds, values, or communication styles with the speaker can make it harder to find shared meaning.

Tips for Becoming a Better Listener

Practicing the following strategies can help overcome barriers and enhance listening skills:

  • Prepare Yourself - Set the stage for attentive listening by finding a quiet place, turning off devices, clearing your mind, and focusing your energy. Mentally prepare an open, nonjudgemental stance.
  • Use Engaged Body Language - Maintain eye contact, nod periodically, face the speaker, and avoid distracting movements to show engaged focus. Mirror the speaker’s tone and energy level.
  • Paraphrase Content - Restate the core content in your own words to show understanding and clarify. Start reflections with “What I’m hearing you say is...”
  • Reflect Feelings - Summarize not just facts but implied emotions. For example, "It seems like you felt frustrated when your request was denied. Is that right?"
  • Ask Open-Ended Questions - Ask questions starting with what, how, why, or tell me more about... to draw out deeper perspectives without interrupting the flow.
  • Avoid Interrupting and Multitasking - Refrain from interjecting your own stories or opinions. Stay focused on the conversation without trying to reply to emails or texts simultaneously.
  • Remain Present and Neutral - Focus on the moment without judgments or distractions creeping in. Maintain neutral body language and tone even when you disagree.
  • Connect the Dots - Make connections to show how you are following the conversation. Verbalize transitions like “Connecting back to the original point...”
  • Summarize - Periodically summarize the key points you’ve heard. Seek confirmation you understand correctly. Repeat back emotions you observed as well.
  • Ask Clarifying Questions - If something is unclear or if you suspect you may have misinterpreted, ask clarifying questions to expand understanding rather than make assumptions.

Levels of Listening at Work

Enhancing listening skills leads to better teamwork, stronger management skills, increased sales, higher engagement, and more at work. Here are some examples of applying levels of listening across roles:


  • Prepare by reviewing topics and clearing your mind of distractions
  • Focus your attention on the speaker
  • Paraphrase action items and decisions to confirm understanding
  • Ask clarifying questions instead of assuming
  • Avoid multitasking and external distractions

Managing Teams

  • dedicate your full attention during one-on-ones
  • Reflect on team concerns and implied emotions
  • Summarize milestones and challenges discussed
  • Connect current issues back to past conversations
  • Empathize with frustrations and motivations

Sales Conversations

  • Actively listen for pain points and unmet needs
  • Reflect frustrations and desires back to the prospect
  • Focus on understanding rather than preparing a pitch
  • Ask open-ended questions to learn more
  • Avoid distractions that take your focus off the prospect

Providing Feedback

  • Listen without interruption or judgement
  • Paraphrase evaluations expressed
  • Connect feedback to past conversations
  • Ask clarifying questions to fully understand all perspectives
  • Reflect emotions involved back to the team member

Receiving Feedback

  • Listen openly without getting defensive
  • Paraphrase feedback and ask clarifying questions
  • Reflect on emotions expressed in the feedback
  • Summarize action items and next steps based on what you heard
  • Maintain eye contact and engaged posture

Conflict Resolution

  • Hear each perspective fully before reacting
  • Reflect frustrations, disagreements, and emotions
  • Find common ground between opposing views
  • Maintain a neutral, understanding tone
  • Clarify misunderstandings asking open-ended questions

Regularly practicing deep listening skills develops instincts that help you communicate effectively in diverse situations.

Enhancing Listening With Supernormal

Supernormal's conversational AI can help augment human listening abilities. By joining meetings and taking incredibly detailed notes, Supernormal captures all conversations, decisions, action items so you can stay present instead of jotting things down.

It also stores notes in a centralized place so you can easily revisit and reference your notes from previous meetings at any time during a conversation.

Overall, Supernormal augments human listening by effortlessly capturing comprehensive meeting notes and making the content easily accessible for future reference. This allows teams to maximize understanding, alignment, and productivity.


Listening is a multifaceted skill that requires practice and intention to master. But enhancing your listening abilities delivers immense rewards in work relationships, productivity, and team cohesion. By being aware of the different levels of listening, barriers that can impede deep listening, and practical tips to engage fully with the speaker, anyone can become a better listener.

Combining focused effort with AI technology like Supernormal to capture conversations creates the ideal environment for impactful communication, collaboration, and work that moves the needle on what matters most.

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