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“It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Writer and Physician

There is an impressive diversity in ways to listen, and they differ in style and agenda.

The reason (the “agenda”) we are listening impacts how we listen (the “style”), and some of the resulting styles are not as effective as others at increasing understanding or connection. In sorting through the buckets of research and conventional wisdom that have developed on the topic, various models have been condensed to the one you will find in this section. The Styles and Levels incorporate ideas from Nonviolent Communication, U-Theory Levels of Listening, classic scientific models, and beyond.

On This Page

You can navigate this section by selecting any of the colored buttons which are representative of each Style of Listening. We recommend learning about the Factors first (buttons below), then checking out the Listening Styles and Levels Model, and then exploring each style individually.

Listening Factors

We recommend learning about Factors before reading about Styles. Click here to go to the Factors page, or click each illustration to learn about each individual factor.







The Styles and Levels of Listening Model

Before diving into the details of individual Styles, it may be helpful to see how all the Styles relate, and what they are generally made up of. The following infographic and table give you a summary of each of the Styles and how each Factor is employed within them. Check out the Infographic first, then explore the table for another way to conceptualize the information.

Both the infographic and the table compare the relative presence of Listening Factors by Style, the general prevalence of the overall Style, the intentions of each Style, and how each Style allocates attention.

Notes on Understanding the Table

The Styles with less effectiveness and effort involved are at the bottom, and these increase as you go up the table.

You will notice a bold line separating Ignoral, Cosmetic, and Persuasive Listening at the bottom of the table. This indicates that these Styles qualify as less effective or genuine styles, and are more common. Styles above this line (Attentive, Empathic, and Deep) each include elements of the Style below it, until the line. For example, Empathic listening includes elements of Attentive listening, and Deep listening includes both Empathic and Attentive. However, None of the three include elements of the styles below the line (Attentive does not incorporate Ignoral).

Also, it should be noted that just because these are arranged in a way that makes them look distinctive and separate isn’t an indication that they are that way in reality. Two-dimensional models tend to lack the ability to capture the vast complexities and rich subtleties of real life. It is common to Style-switch or even use multiple Styles at once in any given listening session!

Styles and Levels of Listening
Active /Passive Attention Intention Likely amt. of Curiosity Likely Awareness * Likely amt. of Authenticity with self and other Likely amt.
of Self Regulation
How common is this type of Listening?**
Active Presence- mostly on speaker but also on broader context and slightly on self Includes intentions of Empathic and Attentive, as well as the intention of connecting to greatest possible future reality High High High High Uncommon
Active Presence and focus on speaker, some on self To understand and connect with another’s perspective and emotional experience (Can include Attentive intention) Moderate to High Moderate to High Moderate to High Moderate to High Moderately Common
Active Focus on speaker To understand content Moderate Moderate to Low Moderate to Low Moderate to Low Most Common
Likely unconscious but can be active at times On self as well as other’s views/beliefs/ behaviors To influence beliefs, feelings, thoughts, ideas Low Low Low Low Most Common
Likely unconscious but can be active at times On self Seeking approval (sometimes is Persuasive) Low Low Low Low Most Common
Likely unconscious but can be active at times On self or other attention object other than speaker Lack of intention or against speaker (Ignoral could also be Persuasive in some contexts) Low Low Low Low Common

Let’s think about it…

  • When was the last time you fell into Cosmetic Listening?
  • Remember a recent conversation in which you felt empathized with. What did the person do while you were sharing? How is that different from what they do in normal conversation?
  • Can you think of a personal example of each Style?

Now that you see how the Styles relate, click on each Style’s button to learn more about them individually and get some examples!

Listening Styles

Click each illustration to learn about each individual style, or keep scrolling to read about them in turn.







Color Key:

Less Genuine and Effective*

More Genuine and Effective* (“Effective Listening”)

Better Listening**

*Rather than effectiveness measuring the extent to which a given agenda is achieved, it is measured by depth of understanding that we can accomplish.

**The Empathic and Deep Listening Styles additionally qualify as what we call “Better Listening,” indicating that they are the most profound styles you can operate under.

ignoral listening


“Reality does not go away when it is ignored.” ― Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society

Attention Intention Curiosity Awareness Authenticity Regulation How common?
On self or other attention object other than speaker Lack of intention or against speaker (Ignoral could also be persuasive in some contexts) Low Low Low Low Common

Ignoral is consciously or unconsciously not giving attention to the speaker.

While ignoral could have the agenda of sending a deliberate message to someone, it isn’t always an intentional choice. Different degrees of Ignoral have become commonplace in modern society due to the potential for distraction that is nearly omnipresent, the pressure to multi-task (driven by the desire for productivity or efficiency), and a general lack of intentionality in how we’re living our lives.

Some common forms of ignoral include:

  • checking your phone during a conversation
  • watching tv during a conversation
  • thinking about your own personal life or daydreaming during a conversation.

In this article from Psychology Today, one author suggests the interesting idea that as a child listening becomes associated with submission:

“From an early age, then, listening becomes culturally associated with the concepts of deference and obedience. To listen means not only to attend and understand, but to heed a warning or to comply with a directive. In this sense, to listen is to collude with one’s own subjugation. From this perspective on listening, not listening is less a failure of attention than it is an act of rebellion. To not listen is to refuse to heed the orders of authorities. One does not listen because one does not want to hear it.”

When we see listening as an act of obedience or submission, ignoral becomes a more understandable strategy to have control in a relationship. While this is certainly not always the case, it is an interesting consideration when confronted with the habit in ourselves or others. How can we empathize with those who employ this strategy in conversations?

When You’re Not Listening 
A parody short from Buzzfeed about how hard it is to pay attention in conversation.

cosmetic listening


Attention Intention Curiosity Awareness Authenticity Regulation How common?
On self Seeking approval Low Low Low Moderate Most Common

Cosmetic listening is extremely common, especially with people that aren’t in our innermost circle.

It is striving to look as if we are listening.

Oftentimes we can get cosmetic listening and effective listening confused. It is a common mistake to believe that if we show, deliberately, that we are paying attention, then that is listening.

“There is no reason to learn how to show you’re paying attention if you are in fact paying attention.” —Celeste Headlee, Broadcaster

Unfortunately, we can become so absorbed in trying to listen and prove that we are listening that we aren’t fully present with what we’re trying to listen to!

Instead we’re focused on ourselves. Cosmetic listening is often consciously done, but it can also occur as a default way of showing up with people we don’t know very well in order to be polite.

The agenda of cosmetic listening is typically to gain approval, be polite, show respect, or avoid conflict.

Examples of Cosmetic Listening:

You’re interviewing for a new job and feeling especially nervous. You’re so nervous in fact, that you’re struggling to stay present and take in everything the employer is sharing. Rather than risk embarrassing yourself when you realize you missed something, you take a quiet breath and smile, nodding.

You were invited to a new friend’s house for a dinner gathering of about eight people. You only know three people there and find yourself picking at appetizers next to two strangers. You have all introduced yourselves and the other two have gotten into some small talk about their work. You’re not really interested in their conversation but you don’t know where else to go, figuring you will end up in the same type of conversation with most others in the house right now. You keep picking at the snacks and try to make occasional eye contact and smile when it seems appropriate.

You’re at dinner with your aunt and her family. Her husband has different political views from you and you and him are both conscious of this. Halfway through the meal he begins to preach about something that came up in the course of dinner conversation that highlights your differing opinions. You feel like he is sharing these ideas to convince you specifically, although he is not speaking directly to you. Rather than “get into it” with him, you choose to stay quiet and look like you’re listening in order to appease him so he will drop it.

persuasive listening


“The chronic kicker, even the most violent critic, will frequently soften and be subdued in the presence of a patient, sympathetic listener— a listener who will be silent while the irate fault-finder dilates like a king cobra and spews the poison out of his system.” — Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People)

Attention Intention Curiosity Awareness Authenticity Regulation How common?
On self as well as other’s views/beliefs/ behaviors To influence beliefs, feelings, thoughts, ideas Low Low Low Low Most Common

It is an inevitable component of interaction that we have an impact on our conversation partners, even if our role is entirely as a listener. This is one reason why it is so important to consciously monitor and choose our agendas!

While all styles of listening impact those we listen to, persuasive listening is defined by its agenda. Persuasive listening is done with the explicit intention of changing or influencing someone’s beliefs, feelings, thoughts, or ideas.

This is different from listening to understand someone but could overlap with listening to support someone. When we listen to understand and connect, we are not trying to change the other person. Persuasive listening intends to affect change in the other.

Have you caught on that the way you listen and engage in conversation impacts and influences the other party?

This article from Greater Good Berkeley delves into how effective listening can be used to persuade people to change their minds.

How Deep Listening Can Make You More Persuasive: You’re more likely to change an opponent’s mind when you ask questions, listen sincerely, and tell stories.

  • Feeling heard and understood by someone makes people more open to hearing or considering other perspectives.

  • When people feel defensive they resist different or opposing views.

  • A technique called Deep Canvassing that involves asking sensitive questions, listening to the answers with sincere interest, and then asking more questions was shown in a study to reduce transphobia.

While not always intended in a darkly manipulative way, Persuasive Listening concerns itself with the listener’s perspective and agenda, imposing that over the speaker. Persuasive Listening is easy to see in the context of ideological debates, but may be more difficult to understand when it comes to trying to convince a friend to feel better when they’re down.

Persuasive Listening is commonly low in Curiosity, Authenticity and Self-Regulation, therefore making it difficult to accept and support a friend in their discomfort, as it tends to make us uncomfortable and thus motivated to fix the situation. (We go further into this idea in our discussion of the pitfalls of advising).

When engaged in listening, it is essential to monitor our agendas to ensure that we are staying in integrity with ourselves and being authentic. If our agenda becomes “change their mind,” we are no longer able to listen as effectively, because our own beliefs, ideas, and feelings are fighting for survival over someone else’s. Our Curiosity, Awareness, Authenticity, sense of Security, and Regulation drop to lower levels. We are no longer striving to understand and witness their experience sincerely.

Are you in integrity with the agenda to change someone? If not, you can readjust, regulate, and proceed.

Examples of Persuasive Listening

When a hostage negotiator has the opportunity to speak with the person threatening violence, they use “tactical empathy” to gain trust. They listen patiently, make empathic guesses, and ask open-ended questions. Through listening and focusing on understanding the person, the negotiator builds rapport in the hope of being able to later influence their choices. In this debate regarding the value of superstition, the debaters make an effort to acknowledge the points of their opponent. They listen carefully in order to show respect and to gather information for their own argument. Life Coaches have become increasingly popular in recent years. Sometimes a young Life Coach may believe the best approach to helping their clients is to build trust so they will take their advice. These people may listen attentively to their clients so they feel heard and understood with the ulterior motive of influencing their behavior according to what they believe is the best course of action. Cosmetic listening can be persuasive when we are showing people we are listening in order to influence them. Being polite to a police officer by nodding and saying “Yes sir/Ma’am,” when being pulled over could be an example of trying to persuade them not to write you a ticket by showing you are respectfully listening to them.

So if Persuasive listening isn’t all bad, when is it appropriate?

Such as with some of the examples above, Persuasive Listening is a natural thing that happens and it is often innocent or culturally sanctioned. A debate or a court case are excellent, rather obvious examples of when Persuasive listening is called for. Because the parameters of these situations are defined by argument and making cases, one must listen for faults to expand on in the opponent’s case, as well as make them feel understood in order to win them over.

However, engaging in ‘debates’ at home with your wife might not go over so well (unless, hey, maybe you were both passionate about debate team in highschool). When we debate in this way or argue, our intention is ‘to win’ or ‘prove the other person wrong.’ It rarely involves trying to truly understand (and not ‘fix’).

The other option is having a dialogue, or working to collaborate. Persuasive listening is probably not collaborative unless it is a term of the conversation, such as during a formal debate.

Persuasive listening isn’t evil- we all fall into it from time to time. It’s also unlikely that when we do engage in it we’re only listening persuasively. We likely go in and out of it, and layer it within the other styles.

attentive listening


“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” — Mary Oliver


Attention Intention Curiosity Awareness Authenticity Self Regulation How common?
Focus on speaker To understand content Moderate Moderate to Low Moderate to Low Moderate to Low Most Common

Attentive Listening is consciously focusing on the speaker and their message, showing engagement through verbal and non-verbal behaviors, and reflecting back or reframing information to confirm understanding.

Attentive Listening is best used to broaden and deepen our understanding of something while showing the speaker that we are engaged and understand. It is listening for the literal content of a message.

You have probably heard of “Active Listening.” Attentive Listening is similar, but we’re distinguishing it from Active Listening because Active often gets misconstrued in the factors of agenda and authenticity.  Active Listening has been popularly promoted for a few decades as The Way to listen effectively. It’s taught by business consultants, added to resume skill sets and encouraged in students. While often well-intended, it can be used ineffectively due to the listener’s intentions.

The video below showcases the popular selling points of Active Listening, but see if you can tell if anything is “off.”

The woman in this example video has the intention of supporting her coworker and is using her newly developed Active Listening skills to do so. For the most part, she does an excellent job reflecting back, guessing, and reframing what she is hearing from him in order to validate his experience and deepen her understanding. Where she misses the mark is in the clunky execution of her toolset, which is informed by her agenda. She comes off as inauthentic because she is using a formula in order to be empathic.

This is a common and totally normal thing for a new Active Listener to do.

We are trying to integrate new techniques into our communication style and it can come off as unnatural and formulaic. We end up using Active Listening as a persuasive strategy to influence the other person.

Even though in the above example the woman’s agenda is benign and compassionate, the more she focuses on her toolset as a means to an end, the more inauthentic she comes off. What she is really aiming for is Empathic or Deep Listening, which surprisingly supports others more effectively by not trying to change the other person’s experience.

You can see similar skills at play in this life-coaching session video. However, the coach does not come off as inauthentic or as if she is trying to show she is listening. The coach reflects back what she hears and asks for more information. This ends up helping her client gain clarity on what she wants.

The difference between the above examples is the point of the conversation; namely an emotionally supportive conversation versus a tactical or informational conversation. In the first example, the woman is using Active Listening in place of natural empathy and in the second example the coach is using Active Listening to gain information and form a strategy, based on the intentions of the relationship.

If the conversation is an emotional one, it is best to use Empathic or Deep listening styles over Active, and likely over Attentive as well. With Attentive listening, instead of going through a set of specific steps, you fully engage with the speaker and do your best to understand their message while being fully present with them. You can see this exemplified in the clip from the movie, “The Heat,” below.

In this scene (you can skip to 3:00) a cop is meeting and talking for the first time to a criminal he has been chasing for years. The pair showcases the qualities of Attentive listening through their complete and totally immersive engagement with one another and their messages.

None of this is to say that Active Listening is bad. Au contraire, it is a wonderful tool to increase understanding! The awkwardness comes in when it is used persuasively, which is a misguided use of the toolset.

Active Listening is a FORM of listening. The thing we need to tap into for it to become effective and affective is the SPIRIT behind it. Oftentimes once we fully feel into genuine spirit (or a sincere “intention”) the form can follow naturally.

“Better listening doesn’t start with a set of techniques. It starts with making a sincere effort to pay attention to what’s going on in the other person’s private experience.” – Dr. Michael Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening

Active and Attentive Compared

Attention Intention Curiosity Awareness Authenticity Self Regulation How common?
Attentive Focus on speaker To understand content Moderate Moderate to Low Moderate to Low Moderate to Low Most Common
Active Focus split between speaker and active listening “formula” To understand, to show engagement, to influence the other person Moderate Moderate to Low Low Moderate to Low Common


Classic Misuse of “Active Listening” Example

Scenario Active Listening Better Choice of Style
Your friend and their significant other have broken up and he has come to you for support. You want them to feel better, so knowing that feeling heard and understood will help, you consciously choose to use your active listening skills. When he begins to look emotionally triggered, you say, “You look really upset,” to reflect back his emotion. When he says he misses his partner and doesn’t know what he will do, you say, “Sounds like you’re confused and feeling lonely.”
You’re confused when your friend seems to shut down a bit further after your responses and tries to change the subject.
What happened is that he (consciously or unconsciously) picked up on a lack of authenticity in your interaction. Instead of feeling understood and supported he felt like he was being patronized or simply that he wasn’t emotionally connecting with you.
It’s a trick example! Neither Active nor Attentive Listening is totally appropriate here. Because the focus of this conversation is mostly emotional, it is better to use Empathic or Deep listening styles. Attentive listening is most appropriate in informationally-focused conversations.
*While some great tools (reflection) were used in the Active Listening example, without emotional connection and authenticity the tools will likely not land. This is hard to do when you’re learning!

A more effective use of the Active Listening toolset is what we’re referring to as Attentive Listening. It incorporates all of the tested and true skills and techniques of Active Listening, but without the confusion of influencing someone’s experience.

With the agenda being solely to broaden or deepen understanding, Attentive Listening is intentional engagement with what the speaker is expressing and focuses on the content of the message.

Here are the basics:

  • Pay attention, focus on the speaker and their message.
  • Show your engagement.
    • Eye contact, facing the person, and not multitasking support this effort.
    • Nonverbal responses like nodding or (seldom) verbal utterances help to show the speaker you are still engaged.
  • Give them time to fully express and finish their message.
  • Paraphrase and repeat back what you understand.
  • Ask clarifying questions.

Attentive Listening avoids advising, interrupting, or persuading.

Examples of Attentive Listening

Imagine the stereotypical good student. They sit in a part of the classroom that gives them a good view and makes it possible to hear easily. They follow the lesson, take notes, and ask well-considered questions. You call up a friend to get a recipe from them that you enjoyed. They have to explain a few complicated steps to you so you decide to take notes. Throughout the conversation you ask clarifying questions and repeat back things they have said in order to make sure you’re getting all the details right. In this clip of a doctor interviewing a patient about a headache, you can see in the first few minutes that the doctor is making a concerted effort to pay close attention to the patient and what they are communicating. The Doctor isn’t a perfect listener in this example, she asks questions that the patient has already addressed in a few instances. However, overall the doctor does a commendable job of staying present, reflecting back what she understands, asking for clarification, and keeping eye contact.

Attentive Listening Practice and Exercises

  • Be Do Notice Model
    • Learn the Be Do Notice Model for learning Better Listening skills!
  • PEACE Acronym 
    • (Sheet / Card) PEACE is an acronym to help you remember how to show up while listening: Present, Engaged, Aware, Curious, and Empathic. Choose a printable card to keep in your pocket or wallet OR a full-page sheet to reference while you’re learning!
  • Fly On The Wall Activity
    • In this activity you will watch and analyze a series of movie clips. The prompts that follow the clips will help you reflect on behaviors and patterns in conversation and their impact.
  • RRV Guide
    • Learn about the tool of Reflect, Reframe and Validate. If you’ve already been introduced, print this reference sheet to use as you’re learning!

©2018 Mark Stivers

empathetic listening


“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” ― Ralph G. Nichols

Attention Intention Curiosity Awareness Authenticity Regulation How common?
Presence and focus on speaker, some on self To understand and connect with emotions Moderate to High Moderate to High Moderate to High Moderate to High Moderately Common

Beyond being Attentive to the content of a message, Empathic Listening goes a step further to connect with the emotional and nuanced experience of the speaker. The meaning derived from their message is enhanced by the understanding of its emotional context and significance. (Empathic Listening qualifies for the category of “Better Listening.” Check out our Better Listening page to learn more about it!)

This Simpsons clip shows Homer’s confusion with the difference between what is said and what is meant by his wife Marge.

According to author and science-journalist Daniel Goleman who focused much of his work on emotional intelligence, empathy can be broken down along three domains:

Cognitive Empathy

Understanding another person’s experience without needing to physically feel it.

A friend has lost their job. Because you have experienced something similar in the past, you understand that it is difficult without having to personally relive it.

You’re sitting with a child who is upset about losing a small toy. While you would not feel that level of emotional response in the same circumstances, you understand that it is a challenging situation for a child.

Your brother has gone under contract on his first home. You understand and appreciate how exciting that is for him.

Emotional Empathy

Feeling another person’s experience physically while not needing to cognitively understand it.

Your son has won his first college football game. While you have never played sports or been a part of a competitive team, you feel ecstatic in his presence after the game and connect with the joy he is feeling.

A close friend of yours has been cheated on. While you have never been cheated on and can’t fully understand the intricacies of the feeling, you see how impacted your friend is and physically feel their pain when they share their experience with you. You are moved to tears imagining being in their shoes.

A teacher you admire and have been studying under for a few years has been having health issues with their digestion. They cannot find a diagnosis and are consistently uncomfortable and struggling with their diet. While this is not something you have been through, you feel their frustration, exhaustion, and yearning for an answer and relief.

Compassionate Empathy

Understanding another’s perspective and being moved to help- also known as “Empathic Concern.”

A new coworker is struggling with the software at work and making repeated blunders. You remember being new and struggling as well and how you would have appreciated more guidance. You offer to show them some tips and tricks.

Your grandmother has passed away and your mother lives alone. You know that she will be grieving heavily and understand what the loss of a close loved-one feels like. You decide to go stay with her for a week and provide emotional support.

A friend has recently been injured in a car accident and may not be able to recover the use of their legs. While this is something you cannot fully understand since it hasn’t happened to you, you feel extreme loss and sadness when you imagine being in their position. You feel moved to support them by spending time with them and finding activities you can do together while they recover.

Of the three types, true Empathic Listening falls into the category of Compassionate Empathy. Both Cognitive and Emotional Empathy have their place in Empathic Listening, but they must be channelled through the filter of Empathic Concern to have the greatest impact for both the listener and the one being listened to. Otherwise, we risk Sympathizing instead of Empathizing.

Being Empathetic towards someone is different from being Sympathetic. Often when we want to support someone we react with Sympathy instead of Empathy. You can mistake Empathy for Sympathy by confusing Sympathy with Cognitive or Emotional Empathy. Author and speaker Brene’ Brown does an excellent job explaining the difference between Empathy and Sympathy in the following video.

Brené Brown on Empathy
Here she explains Sympathy in a Cognitively Empathic manner. Sympathy becomes a judgment of another person’s experience in which their experience gets minimized and/or invalidated.

Sympathy (Mistaken as Cognitive Empathy) Empathy (Compassionate that employs Cognitive)
You understand the circumstantial details of the speaker’s experience without connecting to the emotional material. This may lead to focusing on solutions or diminishing the experience from an “objective” standing. You are able to listen to their story and understand the circumstantial details of their experience, and you understand that the content is only part of the message’s meaning. You are able to relate by internally referencing relevant personal experience without imposing judgment or solutions on the speaker. You are willing to be vulnerable in doing so, without making it about you.
In the example from above in which a friend has lost their job and you understand what that is like, a sympathetic response to this would be to give them unsolicited advice or try to assure them that “It’s not that bad and you’ll figure it out.” A compassionate empathic response to your friend losing their job would be that you listen to their experience without making assumptions that it is exactly like your own. You may realize their experience is a bit different and could be compared to something else you have gone through. You focus on making space to listen to them without needing to fix the situation.
In the above example in which a friend of yours who was cheated on, a sympathetic response might look like making judgements about the situation without taking time to really connect to what they feel. Responses like, “You should find someone better,” or “Didn’t you see that coming?” or, “You’ll get over it eventually, I did.” A compassionate empathic response to your friend being cheated on would look like staying curious about their unique experience and feelings. While listening to them you may recognize a sense of what you think it would be like to go through what they are experiencing. The compassion you feel for them motivates you to continue supporting them in ways that they would like.

This is getting dense, we know, and there is more! Who knew there was so much nuance to the concept of empathy?!

The other way to distinguish Sympathy from Empathy is framed by Emotional Empathy. Both Sympathy and Empathy connect to another person’s feelings, but Sympathy makes it about us.

Sympathy (Mistaken as Emotional Empathy) Empathy (Compassionate that employs Emotional)
You feel what they feel personally by connecting your relevant experience and emotions to the point of being swept up by them. You become emotionally activated to the point that you lose connection with listening to their experience because you are now having a personal experience. Empathizing with them emotionally has become about you, and turned into Sympathy. You are able to listen to their story and understand their emotional experience through personal reference without getting lost in it. You are able to self regulate and stay grounded, present, and attentive to the speaker.
In the example from the first table in which a new coworker is struggling with the company software, a sympathetic response would be to first recognize how frustrated you had felt in their position and then to allow that frustration and resentment to come back up. It could look like offering to help them and then spending the whole time complaining about how much worse it was for you and end up re-directing the situation to focus on your struggles with the company overall. Instead of making the situation about your resentments at work, an empathic response would look like internally recognizing your frustrations while supporting your co-worker. You would not be swept up by them, rather you would stay focused on them and their experience and what support they might need.
In the example from the first table regarding the upset child who lost their toy, a sympathetic response would be to remember a time you lost something sentimental and begin to tell the child about it, continuing to get upset until you are as activated as the kid was- thus making the situation about yourself and your experience instead of theirs. Instead of becoming emotionally wrapped up in your memories that were triggered by the child’s sadness, you regulate yourself and sit patiently with the child, making yourself available to them for comfort or processing.

Examples of Empathic Listening in Action

Communication Skills: Empathetic Listening – Inside Out
As showcased in the above video from the Pixar film Inside Out, Empathic Listening is not about solving problems. Instead, it’s about creating a safe container for someone to experience what is alive for them at that moment, thus validating their experience. By listening without judgment, being fully present, and not trying to persuade someone to be different, we give them the opportunity to do just that.

Same Kind of Different as Me (2017) – Compassion for the Homeless Scene (4/10) | Movieclips
While this example doesn’t show the listening character very much, that fact relays the point: when listening, our focus is on the speaker. In this scene, Rene Zelweger’s character listens and validates without interrupting or redirecting, and even provides affirming physical touch, an empathic response.

This video shows an NVC practitioner demonstrating NVC Empathic.  The woman walks the audience through a conversation with her father, and shows how we can make space for someone to open up and connect with them more deeply based on how we listen to them.

Some examples of empathic listening | Nonviolent Communication explained by Marshall Rosenberg
Marshall Rosenberg, the psychologist who developed Nonviolent Communication, tells two stories to illustrate how to empathically connect and respond to someone. One example is of a group of psychiatrists who only know how to intellectually respond and the other is of a hostile man Marshall interacts within a refugee camp.

Breast Cancer Interview Exchange
In this video from SELF, two women interview each other about their conversation with breast cancer. There are some tender and emotional moments. When one of the women is emotional, the other empathically holds the space without sympathizing or interrogating her.

Hereditary – support group scene
This video is a scene of a support group from the movie Hereditary. The main character shares a heart-wrenching monologue. While the group listening is only showcased a few times in the scene, you notice how they sit in a relaxed yet attentive manner, watching with openness as she shares her story. No one interrupts or asks questions, they simply make space for her to share. Support groups formalize this type of listening environment and people continue to attend them for the opportunity to be heard and empathized with.

Empathic Listening requires high degrees of Attunement, Self-Awareness, and Self-Regulation ability. 

By being aware of our own biases and reactions, regulating them, and being aware of what is going on for the other person, as well as circumstantial factors, we are best enabled to be present and accepting of the speaker.

Empathic Listening Practice and Exercises

For Attunement…

  • The Message Square
    • This print-out details the Message Square Model. It suggests that every message comes with four factors: Self-revelation, Factual Information, Appeal and Relationship. This model proposes that, in each utterance made, 4 aspects are illustrated: 1) what you inform about, 2) what you reveal about yourself 3) what you think about yourself and the other person (or people), and 4) what you want the other person (or people) to do.
  • Reflect, Reframe, Validate
    • This is a printable reference for learning how to Reflect, Reframe, and Validate (“RRV”)- and essential tool for communicating empathy. It also includes a little activity so you can practice with a partner. This sheet compliments our online section, and should be used in conjunction with it.

For Self Awareness…

  • Filters and Biases
    • In this activity, you have the opportunity to list and analyze the different beliefs and biases you may carry about yourself and others and examine how those beliefs affect YOUR behavior.
  • Intentions List
    • This print-out is a list of several different agendas we might have in entering a conversation. Use it to reference as you practice awareness around your own intentions. Included is a series of reflection questions to help you tune into your personal patterns.
  • Journaling Reflection Prompts
    • This is a collection of journaling prompts to help you reflect upon your relationship with listening and current patterns. Through reflection we can empower ourselves to become more aware and make conscious decisions regarding what we want to change. Designed for folks new to consciously practicing listening.

For Self Regulation…

  • Regulation Skills Masterlist
    • This print-out is a masterlist resource of self-regulation techniques to help you get in the zone to listen better.  Pick one or two to practice with for a week and re-evaluate what is working for you.
  • Meditation Practices
    • The following meditation prompts are designed to help you practice mindfulness while addressing focus, awareness, and intention.

And For Overall Empathic Practice…

  • Be Do Notice Model and Guide
    • Click here to learn the Be Do Notice Model for learning Better Listening skills!
    • Print Out: Get a printable copy of the Model to reference.
  • Levels of Listening
    • This print-out shows the layers we can listen to while listening: Or Self, the What, How, and Why. It includes examples and a blank version to use for personal situations.
  • Perspective Tricks
    • This print-out includes a list of some mindset tricks for helping you shift your perspective in conversation. Refer to it when you start your week and choose one to practice. You can re-evaluate and pick a new one later to see what works best for you.
deep listening


“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” – Karl A. Menninger, Psychiatrist


Attention Intention Curiosity Awareness Authenticity Regulation How common?
Presence- mostly on speaker but also on broader context and slightly on self Includes intentions of Empathic and Attentive, as well as the intention of connecting to greatest possible future reality High High High High Uncommon

At the furthest end of the spectrum, the rarest (and most impactful) style of listening is Deep Listening.

It is special in that it includes and goes beyond both the Attentive and Empathic styles to embrace potential and arising possibilities.

To understand Deep Listening more fully, it is imperative to understand both the Attentive and Empathic Styles. Deep Listening is distinct from Empathic in degree of quality and in its ability to ignite transformation. (Both Empathic and Deep qualify as Better Listening. We go into more detail on this on the Better Listening page.)

In this scene from, “It’s A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood,” a film about Mister Rogers, Tom Hanks (as Mister Rogers) visits a dying man and his family. He listens and responds to the underlying tension in the room rather than being caught by the surface-level chatter covering it up.

Otto Scharmer, a lecturer at MIT and founder of the Presencing Institute, talks about listening styles in U Theory, a framework for change across the levels of groups, organizations, and society. In the context of U Theory, they discuss a form of Deep Listening called Generative Listening. It is a style most often practiced by great leaders, coaches, expert therapists, and powerful mentors. It enables those they listen to to gain greater understanding of themselves and what they can become.

U Theory Levels of Listening 

U Theory breaks listening styles down into four unique levels.

  • 1:15-3:15 Level One: “Downloading,” which is listening from what you already know and results in confirming your opinions and judgments.
  • 3:15-5:00 Level Two: “Factual,” which happens with an open mind and results in you noticing things different or new from what you already know or believe.
  • 5:20-6:25 Level Three: “Empathic,” which arises from an emotional connection and results in listening from outside of yourself or from the other person’s experience.
  • 6:25-8:25 Level Four: “Generative,” which is listening from a place of future possibility and connects to things that could become.

Deep Listening requires a great depth of awareness across all the listening factors and layers.

Listening in this way is both energizing and grounding for the listener and the speaker. It helps the speaker feel clearer about their thoughts and feelings and can instigate positive transformation.

It does this by operating along multiple layers at once. With first listening to the Self, they then consider What is being communicated, How it is being communicated, and Why it is being communicated.

  • Self: Deep Listeners first listen to and regulate themselves. They are deeply aware of their filters and biases, and therefore able to put them aside. This opens them up to genuine curiosity beyond judgment.
  • What: They listen to the cognitive and emotional content of the speaker’s message and cognitively and empathically process the details. They also listen for what is left unsaid and for unmet needs.
  • How: They listen for the context of the message; how it is being expressed, how the circumstances of the conversation or relationship may impact the message, and what has influenced this person’s beliefs, feelings or thoughts.
  • Why: They listen for the ultimate meaning of the message (which can be different from the content of the message) by putting together the information from all the above layers.

The following examples illustrate these layers.  While these are not examples of Deep Listening (they are pretty simple scenarios) they show the beginning stages of the practice.

Get a printable version of the Layers of Listening here. It includes a blank version for you to interpret your own scenarios with!

Another powerful framework for gaining insight into the nuances of Deep Listening is Nonviolent Communication (also known as Compassionate Communication).

A significant approach we dedicate a portion of this site to, NVC is a style of communication that focuses on understanding and employing the language of feelings and needs, thus enabling deeper understanding of others and ourselves.

Key to Deep Listening is being able to understand what someone is really wanting or experiencing, which can be tough when most of us do not know how to say such things directly. By generously assuming that everyone is doing their best in any given moment, NVC lovingly reframes negative statements, accusations, and strategies as expressions of unmet needs. This enables us to connect to someone through the universally human aspirations of attaining the joy, love, and ease we all desire.

NonViolent Communication by Marshal Rosenberg : Animated Book Summary
This video gives a cursory overview of NVC and the philosophy behind the practice.

To take a deeper dive into NVC, check out our section on Compassionate Communication here:

The phenomenon of Deep Listening has not been thoroughly explored or written about in a formal manner. Pinning it down when it is happening or defining it in clear terms is a bit like holding flowing water- it continues to flow beyond the container of our grasp. Very Deep Listening is a rare style that we may only experience or offer to another person a few times in our lives. These experiences are transformational.

The Power of Deliberate LIstening | Ronnie Polaneczky | TEDxPhiladelphia
“When an angry reader began cursing her out over the phone, newspaper columnist Ronnie Polaneczky had an epiphany: Magic happens when we set aside our judgments and just listen, even when we are certain that person is wrong and we are right.”

  • 00:00-05:00 Ronnie tells the story of the event that transformed her listening. Her story is an excellent example of how to approach listening from a perspective that opens you up emotionally and mentally to connection.
  • 05:30-09:30 Ronnie explains the positive shift that happens when we give up being Right in our conversations.
  • 15:35-17:00 She offers her guidelines for listening deliberately: Listen with compassion, without judgment, and with an open heart.

Deep Listening Practice and Exercises

  • NVC Tools
  • The Message Square
    • This print-out details the Message Square Model. It suggests that every message comes with four factors: Self-revelation, Factual Information, Appeal and Relationship. This model proposes that, in each utterance made, 4 aspects are illustrated: 1) what you inform about, 2) what you reveal about yourself 3) what you think about yourself and the other person (or people), and 4) what you want the other person (or people) to do.
  • Be Do Notice Model
    • A printable version of the Be Do Notice venn diagram for Better Listening.  Print it out to reference as you’re learning!
  • Elevated Conversation Model and Guide
    • Better Listening skills require practice! Here, we encourage you to engage in an Elevated Conversation with a partner. With this detailed guide and the Elevated Conversations model in front of you, you both will work your way through the stages of conversation.
  • PEACE Acronym (Card / Sheet)
    • PEACE is an acronym to help you remember how to show up while listening: Present, Engaged, Aware, Curious, and Empathic. Try the printable card to keep in your pocket or wallet, or print the bigger sheet to hang up in a place you’ll see it regularly.
  • Layers of Listening
    • This print-out shows the layers we can access while listening: Our Self, the What, How, and Why. It includes examples and a blank version to use for personal situations.

Listening Listening: The Gist Factors in Listening Styles and Levels of Listening Listening Challenges 1: the Dinner Guests Listening Challenges 2 Better Listening Elevated Conversation Hearing and Understanding Listening Practice and Exercises Listening Inspiration and Resources