What type of listener?

One of the things we most seek is a good listener. Somebody who can just shut up and intensely, passionately, attentively listen to what we have to say.

But are we any good at that?

During a coaching course I took, professor Bob Thomson taught me the five different types of listening.

The first one is not listening. It happens when you are in presence of somebody else speaking, yet you are not really paying any attention to what is being said. A great example is when somebody is in a meeting and continuously checks the phone. They are not really listening, they are just physically present.

The second type is listening, waiting to speak. This is when we pay just enough attention to the what is being said to be able to say something as soon as there’s a pause. It happens quite a lot early in a relationship, as we want to make a good impression, and we can’t wait to follow up with something smart. Most of what is said is missed.

The third type is listening to disagree. It happens very muhc in arguments and heated discussions, it’s essentially taking some of the things the other person is saying to make a point. Words are often misunderstood in this scenario, as the real meaning is not at all important. What matters is finding ways to support and strengthen our own view.

The fourth type is listening to understand. While the first three types are very common, this is incredibly difficult to practice and meet. This is sitting in a conversation saying “I want to see the World from your point of view”. We put ourselves aside for a moment, and try to the best of our possibilities to listen and empathize with the other person.

The fifth one is listening to help the other understand. I know the fourth type seemed magical, and as it is so rare, we might be satisfied with it. Yet, it still demands some kind of negotiation: for me to understand your perspective, I need to take my worldview, your worldview, and somehow make sense of them both. And this often means I “distort” your worldview to try to make it fit mine.

The fifth type of listening, on the other hand, says “It does not matter if I understand you or not, what matters is that you understand yourself”. It is pure service. I am here, I am present, I am listening, and I want to help you understand what you are feeling, living, experiencing.

Listening to help the other understand means “I” am out of the equation. Not momentarily, but completely. What you are saying does not have an impact on my assumption, I am not defending anything or trying to understand anything, as I am strong in my own awareness. I want to make yourself strong as well, hence I listen.

Good listeners are no less rare or important than good communicators. Here, too, an unusual degree of confidence is the key — a capacity not to be thrown off course by, or buckle under the weight of, information that may deeply challenge certain settled assumptions. Good listeners are unfussy about the chaos which others may for a time create in their minds; they’ve been there before and know that everything can eventually be set back in its place.

Alain de Botton

Before you demand a certain type of listening, be aware of what you can offer. Most likely, the two will go hand in hand.

7 thoughts on “What type of listener?

  1. […] We are all very busy trying to control our appearance, our background, our environment, the kids screaming in the other room, the cat jumping on the desk to broadcast their behind, the email that just came in, the little red circle signaling that somebody just sent us a message – it might be important. And the most we can do is listening while waiting for our turn to speak. […]


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