The three levels of listening

Seeing a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon, a man decides to lend it a hand. He takes a pair of scissors and very carefully he cuts the cocoon open. Now the butterfly can move freely and fly away – he thinks. But that’s not what happens at all! The butterfly stays on the ground, its body twitches a few times and finally the butterfly starves to death. By reducing the amount of time the butterfly spent trying to escape from the cocoon, she hadn’t been allowed to develop the muscle power she needed to be able to fly.


This is exactly how some managers treat their employees. They consider it their task to solve the problems their staff may have. So when someone approaches them with a problem, they ask them questions so they can understand what the problem is and then they tell the person what they must do to solve that problem. Often accompanied by a complete action plan and clearly defined action points. The employee now only needs to execute the plan. Another satisfied ‘internal customer’.

However well-meant the intentions are, what this manager fails to realise is that he is training his staff to think less and less. If you have any problems, just drop by and I’ll help you. 100% service guaranteed! And his way of working also makes him feel good: they really need him. He’s got a lot of experience, transfers his knowledge to others, and is always prepared to help his employees. In other words, just like this manager in Dilbert’s cartoon, he’s the ideal manager!

The same applies to John; John’s a typical ‘ideal’ manager. But despite that, he’s been getting some negative feedback about his supportive style of management. Not just from his own manager but from his own staff too. Why would that be? Instead of asking any further questions, John’s response is to work even harder, tighten his control over his staff, and start to issue even more instructions. A negative spiral that needs to be arrested acutely.

Listening and designing the relationship

John decides to consult a coach. And his experiences with the coach are a revelation. Once he has explained his problem, he doesn’t get the ready-made answers about what he should do, as he had expected. No, his coach starts asking him questions. Questions that cause him to reflect, resulting in insights about his way of working and the impact that has on the people around him. And the coach also asks him how he would like to work differently. What will happen if he continues to work in the same way he has been working up till now? What does the ideal working relationship with his employees look like? And what’s important about this for him and for his employees? What has to happen to produce the desired result? What’s the first step he’s going to take to initiate the process? His coach doesn’t push him in a certain direction, but lets him make his own choices. His coach does however advise him to talk to his employees about this in the weeks to follow. ‘Designing the relationship’ is what his coach calls it. He also gets a wise lesson to take home with him, a piece of theory about ‘listening’. The fact that there are three levels of listening.

Listening level 1: internal focus

In Level 1 the listening is internally focused. We hear the words of the other person and try to understand what he’s trying to say, but the focus is on what it means to us. John recognises this way of listening. As soon as an employee starts explaining the problem he’s having, all kinds of other similar problems come to mind that he has experienced himself. Instead of asking more probing questions, he takes charge of the conversation, talks about his own situations and the solutions he found for those problems. And he will typically end the discussion by giving his employee the advice to solve the problem in the same way.

Listening level 2: focus on the other

Level 2 listening is a ‘laser beam’ focus on the other person. This is where you continue to ask questions because you really want to understand what the other person is talking about. You listen to the answers and these answers trigger new questions. This is a fairly intense way of listening, the kind that couples in love so often engage in, or what you see in the contact between a father or mother with a baby. You lose yourself in the other person and you can become totally unaware of everything else going on around you. This can provide you with an enormous amount of curiosity and focus, as well as lots of new insights. This is an area that can have huge benefits for John.

Listening level 3: listen between the lines

And then there’s the 3rd level of listening, ‘global listening’ is what his coach calls it. Here you’re not just listening to the words the other person is uttering, but you listen between the lines. What isn’t being said and what does this mean? What does your speaking partner consider important in this situation? And what is your intuition telling you? If you succeed in expressing these kinds of thoughts and feelings, your conversation will gain in intensity. Your partner will become increasingly aware of what’s really important for him. The key thing here is that you don’t assign your insights the status of the truth (if that’s the case, you’re still at the first level), but that you remain curious about the response to your insights. What thoughts do they evoke? You continue to use your curiosity as an instrument.

Determine and adapt your level of listening

And finally, his coach gives him something to think about. During a discussion, his employee will typically be at level 1 (he is reflecting on his own issues). But the manager should typically be at levels 2 and 3 (coaching-style leadership). What will happen within the relationship with his employees if he puts these ideas into practice? Definitely something worth thinking about, but more importantly, something to use in the practice of everyday work and life.

What level of listening do you generally use?

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