The 3 Levels of Listening

People hangout together at coffee shop

I’m a Manager since 2011 and I always thought I am quite a good listener, that was until I attended the Co-Active Coaching training where I got introduced to the different levels of listening and had the chance to extensively practice it.

This made me realise I had been a rather poor listener in most situations at work and in private life.


“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

M. Scott Peck


To be able to fully listen to the other person is generally quite important and absolutely crucial as a coach or leader. It is not something that happens automatically. It requires a lot of practice. Once you experience it and are conscious of it, however, no other skill is so powerful and helpful in so many different situations in life.

In the Co-Active Coaching model, three levels of listening are described which gives the coach the ability to listen at a very deep level.

Level 1 – Internal Listening

Listening on this level is all about yourself. You listen to the words of the other person, but your attention is on what it means to you personally. At this level, the focus of the coach is on “me” – my thoughts, my experience, my biases, my feelings.
In a conversation, sentences similar to the following are common:

  • “I had a similar situation once and I could solve it by doing x”
  • “Why don’t you try to talk to him instead?”
  • “That’ll be temporary, don’t let it distract you from the real issue”

And at the same time, a lot of thoughts unrelated to the conversation might distract you as well:

  • ‘How can she be sure about that?’
  • ‘Hmm, what question should I ask next?’
  • ‘I’m hungry. I should have eaten something before the session’

At Level I as a coach, you’re driving your own agenda. You are listening to the other person but you focus on the problem, you have an opinion and you propose a solution.

Level 2 – Focused Listening

At Level 2 there is a sharp focus on the other person and not much awareness of the outside world. As a coach, you listen for their words, their expressions, their emotions, everything they bring into the conversation. You not only notice what they say but also how they say it. Level 2 listening is the level of empathy, clarification and collaboration. It seems as if there is a hardwired connection between the coach and client.

Level 3 – Global Listening

If Level 2 is a hardwired connection, Level 3 is a radio field and includes everything you can observe with your senses: What you see, hear, smell and feel – the tactile and emotional sensations. You become aware of the energy between you and others and also how the energy changes.
Have you ever entered a room with people and instantly felt the energy? This is Level III listening. You are conscious of the mood, the tone and the impact of the conversation. This is the level at which your intuition will be most available to you.


Coaching at Level 2 and Level 3 is where the most effective coaching takes place. There will always be times when we’ll drop into Level 1 and fall back into judgment and opinion, disconnecting from the client. Being aware of what level you are in and if you’re in Level 1, knowing how to switch to Level 2 or 3, is hard. It takes a lot of practice. And patience.
To me, it is particularly hard when you are emotionally attached to the subject. This is where self-management comes into play. Because it’s so easy to give advice or share your own opinion. But more often than not it’s the least helpful thing to do for your client.