Listening to Understand

Listening is a crucial leadership skill. Listening shows you are committed to the other person’s point of view. Like all aspects of leadership, mindset is key. Is your intention to understand, or to confirm what you already believe to be true?  Is your mindset focused on curiosity and learning?

Active Listening

Many communication specialists focus on “active listening” as the key to becoming a good listener. Active listening is a set of techniques used to help people listen more closely and confirm understanding. These include physical movements such as head nodding, leaning in, and mirroring the speaker’s body language. While these cues can help convey that you’re listening, they don’t ensure you truly hear what the other person is saying. 

Instead of being present to the speaker’s needs and underlying messages, listeners can accidentally pay more attention to their own body language and presentation. Some leaders are even guilty of using active listening behaviors as a manipulative facade for listening. But hearing is different from understanding. 

The Levels of Listening

Not all listening is created equal. The Co-Active Coaching Model defines three levels of listening. Level 1 listening is when you hear someone else’s story and relate it to your own experience. For example, someone tells you about their vacation and you automatically start thinking about your vacation. You imagine their vacation as it relates to you, instead of focusing on what it meant to them.

In Level 1 listening, you might find yourself saying something like, “You think Sanibel is nice. Let me tell you about when I went to Hawaii . . .” Level 1 listeners might believe they are “relating” to the other person by sharing their own experience. In reality, they are just relating the other person’s experience to their own without truly listening to how the other person experienced it or what they thought or felt about it.

In Level 2 listening, you’re so focused on the other person that your thoughts are quiet and you don’t notice anything beyond what they are saying. Your awareness and attention are 100% attuned to them, to the degree that you have let go of your own agenda and inner voice. Level 2 listening allows for deep connection because you’re listening for the nuances of the other person’s story.

And finally, there is Level 3 listening, which is when you fully hear the other person while also tapping into your intuition. Your intuition is the gut feeling that allows you to connect. In Level 3, your inner voice is active, but not in the context of comparing the person’s experience to your own or letting your mind drift away from the conversation. You are truly listening to understand.

Listening to Understand

Organizations are full of communication and feedback loops. It doesn’t solely matter that people know how to share or communicate their feedback and ideas. They must also know that they are being heard, that their leaders are truly listening to understand their point of view. Listening to understand doesn’t require an unlimited amount of time to listen. A ten-minute conversation at Level 2 or 3 is much more effective than thirty minutes at Level 1. Make the most of your time, and other people’s time too, by making an effort to listen to understand. 

When people feel heard and truly understood, they also feel valued. Feeling valued leads to a deeper connection.


Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl, and

Laura Whitworth, Co-Active Coaching: The Proven Framework for

Transformative Conversations at Work and in Life, 4th ed. (Boston,

MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2018).

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About Amy Lafko

As a Physical Therapist, Amy spent years in school learning best practices for patient care and how to put the patient first. Like so many technically skilled clinicians, she advanced to a leadership role. Spending 20+ years in operational leadership, she had an epiphany: Putting the customer first isn’t the path to success or fulfillment. Rather, the most successful organizations and practices put their people first – and exceptional customer care, profitability, and effectiveness naturally followed.