The Not-So-Obvious Keys to Good Listening

When sharing the results of his 360-degree feedback with him, Henry seemed to show a great deal of interest – not surprising for someone who is considered a high-potential manager at a global services company. I had just started coaching Henry and found him to be bright, analytical and very ambitious. However, as I had experienced, Henry was not a good listener. He was quick to argue, and at times did not really pay much attention to any feedback that he sensed was negative. His 360 feedback results confirmed my intuition. Coming from subordinates, peers, his manager, and even from some senior executives, there was a consistent theme that Henry needed to be a better listener.

Henry did not accept this feedback well. He insisted that he was a good listener, that he paid attention when others were talking, and that he had improved his tendency to interrupt others by waiting (albeit impatiently) until they finished making their point. Furthermore, he claimed that he had been applying body-language listening techniques such as making eye contact and leaning forward. Were they just thinking about the old Henry, he asked? The comments about him did not seem accurate anymore, he claimed.

In my experience as a team member, manager and coach, I have become convinced that being a good listener is one of the most important qualities of an effective executive – indeed, of a good parent, physician, spouse, or friend. And there is considerable research on the benefits and impact of good listening. Just recently, Kate Murphy, in a recent New York Times opinion piece (January 12, 2020), referred to research that has found that “… when talking to inattentive listeners, the speakers volunteered less information and conveyed information less articulately. Conversely … attentive listeners received more information, relevant details, and elaboration from speakers, even when the listeners didn’t ask any questions.”

Yet so often, many of us fall short of becoming good listeners. What makes this especially challenging is our own self-serving bias. As the research has shown, we tend to believe that we are above average in many areas, e.g., driving skills, intelligence, etc., and I would bet this also applies to our perceptions of our listening skills. When I ask my students how many of them believe that they are good listeners, more than half raise their hands.

According to Oscar Trimboli, who has a book as well as a podcast called Deep Listening, we spend at least 55 percent of our day listening, yet only two percent are being trained to listen. He identifies the four villains of listening: the interrupting listener (who wants to jump in right away), the dramatic listener (who can’t wait to expand on what you are saying to add their own experiences), the lost listener (who checks out of the conversation), and the shrewd listener (who is too busy trying to solve the problem that the speaker is talking about and not really what might be unsaid).

Why are managers poor at it? When I think back on all the managers I have interviewed, reported to, managed, and coached, they seem to be holding one or more of these four assumptions. One, I am right and others are wrong; they have nothing to offer, while I am the expert with lots of experience. Two, I don’t want to show my ignorance or weakness by listening or asking questions. Three, I don’t have time to listen; my day is filled with tasks and meetings, so just get to the point. Four, I need to show that I can act quickly and make quick judgments; besides, I trust my gut.

This is a syndrome not just of managers but also of other professionals, especially physicians. For example, research suggests doctors interrupt their patients during an appointment after 11 seconds (median time), not even giving their patients a chance to fully explain the reason for their visit. And with the emphasis on electronic record keeping, remember your last doctor’s visit, when he or she probably spent more time typing on their laptop while talking to you than making eye contact and expressing empathy?

Unfortunately, the popular literature on listening seems to focus on techniques, such as watching your body language, nodding, mirroring or rephrasing. Trimboli, for example, suggests the following: listen to yourself (especially your breathing), listen to the content (not just the words but the whole person), listen to the context (the patterns in the person’s dialogue), listen to what’s unsaid, and listen for meaning. These are excellent suggestions. There is nothing inherently wrong with these techniques; in fact, they can be very helpful at times. But to be an effective listener requires something more fundamental than learning some techniques.

In my experience, becoming a better listener starts with making two decisions about yourself, and then following these up with actions. Your first decision is to resolve that you will want to become a more effective listener, and then start by identifying those situations or individuals when you fail to listen. For example, it might be when you are interacting with subordinates who you believe are too junior or whose intelligence you don’t respect. Or it might be when you are challenged or questioned by a person with whom you might feel competitive. Make a list of those situations; for some clients, I recommend they do a daily log (for which I’ve created a template) for two weeks and then look for themes.

Your second decision is to adopt a listening mindset by respecting what others have to say, and not rushing to judge too quickly on their remarks; in other words, listen first to understand. Then start by identifying specific behaviors you would like to improve on, for example, pausing or counting to three before responding, or watching your body language, so you can build your listening habits. Interestingly enough, what I have found is that some male executives will say that they are not just as good a listener as their spouse or some of their female managers – as though their being male is an excuse for being a poor listener. Guys, you have to be convinced that you want to and can be a better listener, and it has nothing to with your male identity.

It goes without saying that getting feedback from others is important, and this also requires listening. Find a trusted advisor or colleague who can regularly provide you with feedback on whether or not you are becoming a better listener and listen carefully to their feedback. If you truly want to become a better listener, you need to be convinced that listening will help you (and others) and that being a good listener is a quality you would like to see in yourself. So instead of focusing immediately on techniques, resolve first to become a better listener and adopt a listening mindset.

Trimboli, O. (2017). Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words.

Edgar Schein:

Definition of humble inquiry: the skill and the art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person. (p. 21)

We must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.

Good communication requires building a trusting relationship, and building a trusting relationship requires humble inquiry.

Use of questions

Watch body language

Be present, suspend judgment

Edmondson – situational humility

Diana Raab (2017) The goal of deep listening is to acquire information, understand a person or a situation, and experience pleasure. Active listening is about making a conscious decision to hear what people are saying. It’s about being completely focused on others—their words and their messages—without being distracted.

Four Levels of Listening

According to Otto Schamer and Katrin Kaufer in Leading from the Emerging Future, there are four levels of listening.

  1. Downloading: the listener hears ideas and these merely reconfirm what the listener already knows.
    2. Factual listening: the listener tries to listen to the facts even if those facts contradict their own theories or ideas.
    3. Empathic listening: the listener is willing to see reality from the perspective of the other and sense the other’s circumstances.
    4. Generative listening: the listener forms a space of deep attention that allows an emerging future to ‘land’ or manifest.

At its core, leadership is about shaping and shifting how individuals and groups attend to and subsequently respond to a situation. But most leaders are unable to recognize, let alone change, the structural habits of attention used in their organizations. Learning to recognize the habits of attention in a business culture requires, among other things, a particular kind of listening. Over more than a decade of observing people’s interactions in organizations, I have noted four different types of listening: downloading, factual listening, empathic listening, and generative listening.

Listening 1: Downloading
“Yeah, I know that already,” I call this type of listening downloading—listening by reconfirming habitual judgments. When everything you hear confirms what you already know, you are listening by downloading.

Listening 2: Factual
“Ooh, look at that!” This type of listening is factual or object-focused: listening by paying attention to facts and to novel or disconfirming data. You switch off your inner voice of judgment and focus on what differs from what you already know. Factual listening is the basic mode of good science. You let the data talk to you. You ask questions, and you pay careful attention to the responses you get.

Listening 3: Empathic
“Oh, yes, I know exactly how you feel.” This deeper level of listening is empathic listening. When we are engaged in real dialogue and paying careful attention, we can become aware of a profound shift in the place from which our listening originates. We move from seeing the objective world of things, figures, and facts (the “itworld”) to listening to the story of a living and evolving self (the “you-world”). Sometimes, when we say “I know how you feel,” our emphasis is on a kind of mental or abstract knowing. But it requires an open heart to really feel how another feels. An open heart gives us the empathic capacity to connect directlywith another person from within. When that happens, we enter new territory in the relationship; we forget about our own agenda and begin to see how the world appears through someone else’s eyes. 

Listening 4: Generative
“I can’t express what I experience in words. My whole being has slowed down. I feel more quiet and present and more my real self. I am connected to something larger than myself.” This type of listening connects us to an even deeper realm of emergence. I call this level of listening “generative listening,” or listening from the emerging field of future possibility. This level of listening requires us to access our open will—our capacity to connect to the highest future possibility that can emerge. We no longer look for something outside. We no longer empathize with someone in front of us. “Communion” or “grace” is maybe the word that comes closest to the texture of this experience.

When you operate from Listening 1 (downloading), the conversation reconfirms what you already knew. You reconfirm your habits of thought: “There he goes again!” When you operate from Listening 2 (factual listening), you disconfirm what you already know and notice what is new out there: “Boy, this looks so different today!” When you operate from Listening 3 (empathic listening), your perspective is redirected to seeing the situation through the eyes of another: “Boy, yes, now I really understand how you feel about it. I can sense it now too.” And finally, when you operate from Listening 4 (generative listening), you have gone through a subtle but profound change that has connected you to a deeper source of knowing, including the knowledge of your best future possibility and self.

“Ya, I know that already.” The first type of listening is downloading: listening by reconfirming habitual judgments. When you are in a situation where everything that happens confirms what you already know, then you are listening by downloading.    (M57)

“Ooh, look at that!” The second type of listening is object-focused listening: listening by paying attention to factual and to the novel or disconfirming data. In this type of listening you pay attention to what differs from what you already know. You attend to ideas about reality that differ from your own rather than denying them (as you do in the case of downloading). Object-focused or factual listening is the basic mode of good science. You ask questions and you carefully observe the responses that nature (data) gives to you.    (M58)

“Oh, yes, I know how you feel.” The third and deeper level of listening is empathic listening. When we are engaged in real dialogue, we can, when paying attention, become aware of a profound shift in the place from which our listening originates. As long as we operate from the first two types of listening, our listening originates from within the boundaries of our own mental-cognitive organization. But when we listen empathically, our perception shifts from our own organization into the field, to the other, to the place from which the other person is speaking. When moving into that mode of listening we have to activate our empathy by connecting directly, heart to heart, to the other person. If that happens, we feel a profound switch; we forget about our own agenda and begin to see how the world unfolds through someone else’s eyes. When operating in this mode, we usually feel what another person wants to say before the words take form. And then we may recognize whether a person chooses the right word or the wrong one to express something. That judgment is only possible when we have a direct sense of what someone wants to say before we analyze what she actually says. Empathic listening is a skill that can be cultivated and developed, just like any other skill in human relations. It’s a skill that requires us to activate a different source of intelligence-the intelligence of the heart.    (M59)

“I can’t express what I experience in words. My whole being has slowed down. I feel more quiet, present and more my real self. I am connected to something larger than myself.” This is the fourth level of listening. It moves beyond the current field and connects to a still deeper realm of emergence. I call this level of listening generative listening, or listening from the emerging field of the future. This level of listening requires us to access our open heart and open will — our capacity to connect to the highest future possibility that wants to emerge. On this level our work focuses on getting our (old) self out of the way in order to open a space, a clearing that allows for a different sense of presence to manifest. We no longer look for something outside. We no longer empathize with someone in front of us. We are in an altered state — maybe communion or grace is the word that comes closest to the texture of this experience that refuses to be dragged onto the surface of words.    (M5A)

You’ll notice that this fourth level of listening differs in texture and outcomes from the others. You know that you have been operating on the fourth level when you realize that, at the end of the conversation, you are no longer the same person you were when you started the conversation. You have gone through a subtle but profound change. You have connected to a deeper source — to the source of who you really are and to a sense of why you are here — a connection that links you with a profound field of coming-into-being, with your emerging authentic Self.  


This is the most basic and habitual form of listening. It is very direct, and usually only occurs when the individual is familiar with what they are hearing/being told, and are therefore only listening to confirm what they already know, or their current opinion, which is likely not to change. Everything they are hearing is being projected onto preconceptions of the situation and is reflecting the past rather than the present moment.

Factual Listening

This is the next stage, which involves listening with an entirely open mind and without any presumptions or prior judgments. Individuals employing factual listening are attentive to new ideas and data and are accepting of any differences from what they already know. The outcome is that their opinions or views on a situation may be altered by new information that is now available to them. This is good for scientists, or individuals in an analytics situation, but is still not suitable for those who need to be more visionary, such as leaders.

Empathic Listening

Empathic Listening requires a yet deeper level of listening and needs the individual at hand to have a certain level of emotional intelligence. This is the ability to truly connect with the individual who is being listened to and to see the world, situation, subject, or opinion as they do, through their eyes, and provides them with an emotional connection to the speaker. This provides the listener with alternative perspectives that can help to sculpt and define their decision-making.

Generative Listening

This is the highest, most informative level of listening, and is a very important skill for leaders to learn. It requires the individual to gain a connection with the best future that they can; an emerging and developing future, or possible futures. This subsequently results in a profound shift and a truly deep sense of knowing. This can be used to envisage individual development, and can also be used to design and plan organizational change.

Plett: Listening becomes increasingly more difficult as we move down these four levels because each level invites us into a deeper level of risk, vulnerability, and openness. There is no risk in downloading because it doesn’t require that we change anything. Factual listening is a little riskier because it might require a change of opinion or belief. Empathic listening increases the risk because it requires that we open our hearts, engage our emotions, and risk being changed by another person’s perspective. Generative listening is the riskiest of all because it requires that we be willing to change everything–behavior, opinions, lifestyle, beliefs, action, etc. in order to allow something new to emerge.

Generative listening not only requires a willingness to change but a willingness to admit I might be wrong.

For example, when I engage in generative listening around race relations, I have to be willing to admit that I have benefited from the privilege of being white and that I might be guilty of white fragility. If I am truly willing to listen in a way that generates an ’emerging future’, there’s a very good chance I will be challenged in ways I’ve never been challenged before, to accept the truth of who I am and how I’ve benefited from and been complicit or actively engaged in an oppressive system.


Raab, D. (2017). Deep Listening in Personal Relationships.

Plett, H. (2017). The Power of Deep Listening.

Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Press.