The 5 Levels of Listening

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The 5 levels of listening by Stephen R. Covey clearly describes how effectively we listen. The 5 levels show how much we listen and how this ties into our ability to communicate effectively.

By understanding the 5 levels of listening, we can improve our listening skills, build better relationships and communicate more effectively.

The 5 Levels of Listening

the 5 levels of listening

The 5 levels of listening are:

  1. Ignoring – we completely ignore what has been said
  2. Pretend listening – we use body language and eye contact to show that we are listening but the reality is you are not
  3. Selective listening – we listen to the parts that interest us and switch off for the parts that don’t
  4. Attentive listening – we pay attention and really take on board what has been said
  5. Empathetically listening – we concentrate and listen to understand the intent behind the message


The first of the 5 levels of listening is ignoring. Here, we are not listening at all. Our body language likely shows this is the case too. For example, we may look away, do something else and not engage with the person who is communicating with us.

There are no situations where this level of listening is appropriate and should be avoided. Even in a scenario where the communication coming toward is negative or insulting. This is because it will likely frustrate the person communicating with us and make their negative communication even worse.

Pretend Listening

The second of the 5 levels of listening is pretend listening. Here, we may use body language that shows we are engaged and listening to what is being said, but our mind is probably elsewhere – either intentionally or because we have something else to concentrate on.

We will eventually get caught out if we use pretend listening because we either have to ask the other person to repeat what was said or, we get a question from them that we can’t answer or an action that we will be unable to carry out.

communication skills training course - the 5 levels of listening

Selective Listening

The third of the 5 levels of listening is selective listening. Here we do the same as pretend listing in that we show that we are listening through body language, but we do hear certain parts or engage on occasions. These are times where what is being said interests us.

Just like pretend listening, we will get caught out if a question comes our way or we have an action to carry out.

Attentive Listening

The fourth of the 5 levels of listening is attentive listening. When we are listening attentively, as the word suggests, we are paying attention. This means that we are concentrating on what is being said and responding appropriately. We will also be using the right body language to show that we are listening.

In order to use attentive listening, we must first decide that we want to listen. This explains why listening is a skill as it is something that we ‘need to turn on’ and use. Then, we ensure we give the person communicating with us our full attention – no distractions.

Empathetic Listening

The fifth of the 5 levels of listening is attentive empathetic listening. When listening empathetically, we not only listen to what is being said, we listen to understand. It means trying to see things through the eyes of the person communicating with us. What are they feeling, why are they communicating this and how do they want me to feel.

By listening empathetically, we are able to formulate a more appropriate response that matches the person who is communicating with us.

Which Level of Listening Should I Aim For?

Ideally, you would always use empathetic listening. But, attentive listening is OK for a level to aim for. Anything less, then we are not listening effectively.

Further Learning

If you would like to learn more about the 5 levels of listening and ways to improve your listening skills. Take a look at our Communication Skills Training Course for more details.

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