Stop interrupting: levels of listening

It's rare for anyone to feel that they've really been heard - life is moving quickly, the clock always seems to be on, decisions need taken yesterday. But if you want to innovate, lead and take better decisions, listening is the one skill worth developing.

Otto Scharmer, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), developed the Four Levels of Listening model. It's particularly useful when applied to interviews between two parties, during a collaborative strategy process or an innovation sprint. Ideally, in addition to interviewer and interviewee, a third person would capture, in writing, everything that is said. Using recording devices tends to create a mental block, however, for interviewees. 


When we allow someone to download on a situation, we gain a clear perspective of the past. Imagine being asked a question and then being left to answer, with no interruptions. Imagine the person who's listening, taking down copious notes to understand what you're saying, as you say it. This kind of listening can change the perspective of the listener, by being so open to hearing what is being said, and spotting connections that might have been missed otherwise. It's also valuable for the speaker, as they make connections between what they observe as they articulate it for someone else, maybe for the first time.

Conversational Listening

This is the next stage, which involves listening with an entirely open mind and without any presumptions or prior judgements. Those using conversational or "factual" listening are seeking out new ideas and information. The purpose is to seek out alternatives to what is on the interviewer's mind, but there is a potential trap of 'listening in order to respond' - if you're only listening to what you are seeking, the process is less useful.

Empathetic Listening

What makes you say that? Where does that perception come from? What do you think or believe about this? Empathetic Listening seeks to dig deeper into the 'why' of people's perceptions by putting the interviewer into their shoes. The alternative perspectives the interviewer gains can help to shape their decision-making. 

Emergent Collaboration or Generative Listening

Whereas Downloading reflects on the past, this level of listening casts a view forward, and requires both parties to ask about the future. Rather than what, we ask "what if...?", and both parties attempt to design or foresee something different.

Consider having posters of these levels of listening on your wall, and indicate to the team what kind of listening you're expecting during your meeting.

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Ewan McIntosh

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