To listen fully means to pay close attention to what is being said beneath the words. You listen not only to the 'music,' but to the essence of the person speaking. You listen not only for what someone knows, but for what he or she is. Ears operate at the speed of sound, which is far slower than the speed of light the eyes take in. Generative listening is the art of developing deeper silences in yourself, so you can slow our mind’s hearing to your ears’ natural speed, and hear beneath the words to their meaning.
— Peter Senge
We can all appreciate that active listening is a complex skill, full of nuances, nonverbal communication, and plenty of distractions. We all know someone who is a good listener and probably someone who "listens with their mouth open" not truly listening, and mostly waiting to respond. Poor listeners feel disconnected and disinterested, perhaps listening to be polite. Good listeners create space for us to speak, show genuine interest, ask questions, seek clarification, and otherwise want to be engaged in the process of negotiating meaning.
In 1994 the International Listening Association (ILA) crafted a comprehensive definition of (active) listening: “Listening is the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages.” This definition helps us appreciate that listening involves a lot of energy and engagement. We must opt-in, buy-in to active listening. We must first differentiate hearing and listening—hearing being the automatic, passive process of sensing sound; and listening being an active process of creating meaning from sounds. From there, we can possibly work toward developing empathy and appreciation, perhaps even cross over into the deeper realms of listening that share many qualities with meditation.
Here are seven levels of listening that I have differentiated for myself as a classroom teacher and education consultant. These are generally in order of how much energy is required to engage at that level, where hearing is automatic and deep listening is incredibly connective and crosses over into silence and meditation. The goal is to have our students to become at least Active Listeners for most purposes at school, though Empathetic Listening and Appreciative Listening would be fantastic for situations like Socratic Seminar. Listening For, also known as Discriminative Listening, is a great level to practice specific listening skills. You can read more about Deep Listening in one of my articles.
- Hearing: the automatic, passive process of registering noises or sounds.
- Assumed Listening: believing you are listening, but likely in a state of “continuous partial attention.”
- Listening For: the conscious act of anticipating and focusing on specific sounds, words or ideas.
- Active Listening: the deliberate act of attempting to understand the total message, complete with nuances, non-verbal communication, potential implications, emotional content, etc.
- Empathetic Listening: active, objective listening from another person’s perspective.
- Appreciative Listening: listening to understand and find value.
- Deep Listening: connective listening to the world around you.
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