Strategic Leadership: The 3 Levels of Listening

Matt Russell
The Startup
Published in
4 min readNov 27, 2017


Have you ever returned home from work after a long day, set your keys down, greeted your spouse, and after a few minutes of talking realized that you just walked into an ambush?

You didn’t even see it coming! It was certainly something you said. Your spouse was telling you about their day, then like a deer walking into a trap, you inserted your opinion at the most inopportune time. What were you thinking?!?!

Now you are confused, they are upset, and neither one of you knows what went wrong. This is a classic case of poor listening.

Personally, I always thought I was a pretty good listener, that was until a senior executive (for whom I have great respect) spoke to me about the different levels of listening; it was only then that I realized I had actually been a fairly poor listener for most of my life.

Effective listening is not something that just happens by chance. It takes at lot of practice to develop. Once you grow in this area, however, no other skill will serve you better in life. Effective listening is at the heart of everything we do as leaders. Whether we are giving feedback to a subordinate at work or trying to choose a paint color with our spouse at home, our ability to listen effectively gives us an advantage in just about every situation.

Contemporary literature typically defines three levels of listening:

  • Level 1: Internal Listening — Listening to your inner voice.
  • Level 2: Focused Listening — Listening intently to another person.
  • Level 3: Global Listening — Listening to others in the context of their entire surroundings.[1]

These levels are insightful and effectively describe the action of listening. But I find they have even more application when described in the context of the purpose of each level. I hope you enjoy my spin on the three levels and that they help you become a more effective listener in both your personal and professional life.

Level 1: Listen to Speak

Most of us start here and remain here unless we are intentional about developing our listening skills. At this level, we are not really listening to others when they talk, rather, while they are speaking we are mostly just thinking about the next thing we want to say. This is the lowest level of listening and pretty much just comes naturally. Listening to speak has the most potential to create misunderstandings and often causes us to miss key information in conversations.

Level 2: Listen to Hear

Most of us can get here in select situations if we are motivated. At this level we are actively paying attention to what the other person is saying. We are not thinking about what we want to say next or distracted by other things, we are totally focused on the other person. A good example of listening to hear that most of us can relate to is when we are on a first date with a love interest; we tend to listen intently to their every word. The reason why we are able to do this in some situations but not in all is because our motivation to listen waxes and wanes depending on who we are with. If we truly want to become great listeners — and it will serve us well to do so — we have to motivate ourselves to listen intently to every person, not just some.

Level 3: Listen to Understand

This is the highest level of listening and few of us can get here without intentional practice. At this level we are not only paying attention to what others are saying, but also what they mean. People say things all the time but often fail to convey the underlying feelings or thoughts behind their words.

To give you an example, when you come home from work late and your spouse asks “Will you be at Susie’s music class tomorrow?” you respond “I will try but I have been swamped in the office and traffic is terrible.” your spouse says “This is Susie’s last class before her recital, how can you not make it?” (Things pretty much just continue in a downward spiral from there).

What went wrong? When your spouse asked if you will be at Susie’s music class, they were not asking simply for the sake of the class, they were trying to convey a deeper feeling. In this scenario, they were trying to tell you that they did not feel like you consider them a priority because you often come home late from work and miss important events. The music class was not the issue, it was merely the tipping point. When we pick up on the subtle queues and context of what others say it enables us to get at the main thing.


If we can learn to truly listen to others (not just think about what we want to say while others are speaking) then we can grow into Level 2 listeners. With practice, we can go further and train ourselves to not only pick up on what others are saying, but also on their subtle queues and the context of what is said; this will enable us to grow into Level 3 listeners. I am convinced that effective listening is the single most important skill that we can develop as leaders because it is the bridge through which we understand other people; without understanding we cannot lead.


  1. “Co-Active® Coaching Skills: Listening,”, accessed 25 November 2017,



Matt Russell
The Startup

I Write About My Journey to Pursue What Matters in Life. →