You probably learned to write, read, and maybe even give a public speech at an early age — but how often did a teacher or, later, a professor, talk to you about the types of listening and listening skills, beyond just telling you to ‘be quiet and listen’?
Probably not often, if at all.
However, it’s vitally important for leaders and team members alike to learn the different types of listening in communication, in order to truly understand the needs of those around us with whom we communicate
In developing listening skills, we’re also better able to hone our ability for deep focus, which is helpful in many other areas of our life beyond communication.
So, do you need to level up your listening skills?
Here, we’re exploring the five primary types of listening. Evaluate what type of listener you are (be honest!) and identify where you might have some room for improvement.
The 5 Types of Listening
There are five types of listening: passive, selective, attentive, active, and empathetic.
Below, we’re unpacking each type so you can evaluate your current status.
1. Passive listening
A passive listener is pretty much present in body only. Their mind is wandering. They hear a speaker’s main points, but little information gets through otherwise. They know to nod along and say the right words so anyone else in the room isn’t entirely aware of their actual lack of attention.
Passive listening is the most common form of listening, and it originates in childhood. Many authority figures teach children to be seen and not heard and dismiss their input in conversations. In our adult lives, we use passive listening often — during dull meetings, during conversations with people we don’t really like, or even in conversations with loved ones when we’re distracted or stressed.
However, just because we were taught this type of listening early and it’s incredibly common in many settings, that doesn’t mean it’s a healthy or useful form of communication. Passive listening prevents listeners and speakers from truly connecting with one another and makes for one-sided communication.
2. Selective listening
If you’re not a selective listener, you probably know one. Selective listeners seem to filter what they hear through their own worldview, so that they only hear what they want or expect to hear. They lean into their own beliefs, thoughts, and feelings, to the point they no longer hear viewpoints that are misaligned with their own confirmation biases. This means even when a speaker conveys a message that contradicts these biases, the selective listener manages to twist and turn that message to fit their subconscious needs.
While this type of listening can be born of a place of trauma or a need for safety (i.e., my beliefs are safe and comfortable, so I’ll let my brain filter out any potential threats), it can also severely limit one’s growth — in relationships, in the workplace, and in one’s personal life. When a listener is so ingrained in their beliefs that they are unable to hear any messages that counter them, their social and emotional progress in life can become severely stunted.
3. Attentive listening
An attentive listener attentively holds on to a speaker’s every word. Attentive listeners are getting it all and remembering it. However, just because an attentive listener is able to repeat back to you what you just said, that doesn’t mean they truly understood it.
An attentive listener focuses primarily on the words being spoken and takes them at face value. They may struggle to see the underlying meaning of an individual’s words or to pick up on the emotions and minute details in expression that differentiate a compliment from an insult, for example.
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4. Active listening
An active listener is just that: an active participant in the conversation and message. An active listener is an effective listener because they not only thoroughly listen to what’s being communicated, they engage with that message, too. They ask questions and offer input and insight. They stay on topic and use body language that shows they are receptive to the speaker’s words, whether they agree with them.
5. Empathetic listening
Lastly, empathetic listeners are the best, most effective listeners. Not only is an empathetic listener actively engaging with an individual’s words and message, they’re also actively paying attention to the emotion behind those words and messages. These listeners can put themselves in the other person’s shoes and understand their perspective.
This allows the empathetic listener to develop a full understanding of exactly what the other individual means — regardless of the words the other individual uses. For this reason, an empathetic listener can often facilitate a productive, meaningful conversation, even if the other person isn’t quite as skilled as a communicator.
The Bottom Line
So, what type of listener are you?
Are you more apt to just nod along and wait for the conversation to be over so you can make your escape? Maybe you’re, most often, a passive listener.
Do you find that you often have communication conflicts, in which the other person indicates that you’re not understanding their point? Maybe you’re a selective listener.
Do you hear what other people are saying, but find that you have a difficult time picking up on their emotions or nuances in their speech and body language? You could be an attentive listener, focusing too much on individual words and not enough on the overall message.
Do you actively participate in conversations that feel fully two-sided, engaging, and productive? That’s a sign you’re an active listener.
Do your conversations lean more toward “getting to the heart of the matter,” or have colleagues or friends said you are the person “who always understands them” when they come to you with concerns? You might just be the very best kind of listener of all: an empathetic listener.
But if you’re a passive, selective or attentive listener, you may have a lot of room in which to develop your communication skills — and, in turn, your leadership and overall business skills.
If you’re finding it challenging to become an active or empathetic listener, you’re not alone. Working with an Arootah Coach can make it easier to level up your listening skills and become a better leader. Schedule a free, 30-minute consultation to get started.