By Tony V. Zampella, designer of learning programs

In Part 2 of our four-part inquiry into Listening, we will explore who we are as listeners, what drives our listening, and how our listening shapes our action and learning. Given the importance of listening, and my research herein, I will offer part three on Deep Listening from Empathy and part four on Deep Listening from Being.

Recall that Listening is Decisive; it shapes how we perceive situations, what we say, and what we act on. Our last blog introduced levels of listening, which I recap here.

Levels of Listening

Levels of Listening are mindsets based on the notion that each of us listens from a set of concerns given by our view of reality. We are driven by an attention-focus dynamic. We focus on concerns that drive our attention.

1 – Listening to Protect: WE REACT – At this level we care most about protecting and this often finds us pretending, controlling, and projecting.

  • Focus of Attention: To control events.
  • Communications: Defensive/Habitual.

2 – Listening to Facts: WE PREDICT – At this level we most care about certainty, getting the facts, which finds us better at predicting, anticipating, and informing.

  • Focus of Attention: To predict and respond to events
  • Communications: Debate/Conform.

3 – Listening to Relate: WE CONNECT – At this level we most care about understanding others and find ourselves respecting, appreciating, and empathizing.

  • Focus of Attention: To achieve mutual understanding.
  • Communications: Dialogue/Negotiate.

4 – Listening for Being: WE CREATE – At this level we empower others, which finds us generating, creating, empowering, and transforming.

  • Focus of Attention: To create together from the future.
  • Communications: Collective Creativity.

The Way We Listen

We tend to observe listening as the opposite of speaking. In other words, if you are not speaking then you must be listening. These observers engage a fatal error. Listening is a commitment first, then a capacity, and then skill. If this is news to you, please consider at some point you’ve reduced listening to something much less than what is possible. Gemma Corradi Fiumara from her book: The other Side of Language, a philosophy of listening, says this well:

“Our philosophy is grounded in only half a language, in which the power of discourse is deployed but the strength of listening is ignored. We have a culture that knows how to speak but not how to listen; so we mistake warring monologues for genuine dialogue.”

In this part, I offer the grid below to further distinguish each listening level or mindset (listed above) with a description of each mindset, its strengths, limitations, the catalyst of change, and the percentage of the population at each level.

This material is developed from my research into integral and developmental models by Ken Wilber, Otto Scharmer, Bill Torbert, along with Susan Cook-Greuter’s quantitative data and qualitative research over three decades in ego-development.

A note about this grid. Because most listening resides at level 2, I’ve segmented this level into two parts: 2a (lite blue) and 2b (blue). Listening from facts, or through objective, knowledge-based reality, still defines the bulk of listeners. Mastering this level can look very different at level 2a, listening through linear, sequential, concrete and discrete events that are tactical – than at level 2b, which involves patterns from research, science, and knowledge that is strategic.

Listening Mindsets

Table A grid provides five levels (each row: red, lite blue, blue, green and purple) of listening to include four mindsets, and five columns as follows.

Column A “Mindset-Level” identifies each level/mindset and includes each listener’s relationship to time. Immediate time is marked by impatience and impulsive habits driving listening to be reactive. With each level, we see greater patience and pliancy leading to timelessness at level four — at which point individuals view reality beyond their lifetime.

Still, in Column A, we also see the temporal character (focus) at each mindset. Each listener’s “focus” is located temporally: how each relates to the past, present or future. In the first level – Listening to Protect – individuals listen to current situations through their past, or through reflexive frames. These listeners cannot remember past events without reliving them. The past shapes listening in what to avoid, deny, or protect that may trigger some unpleasant experience(s) from the past.

Column B highlights strengths at each level.

Column C highlights limitations at each level.

Column D identifies the catalyst for change to the next level. This column identifies what needs arise over time that often motivate or stimulate one to expand listening.

Column E offers some data to gauge the level our population and managers occupy. The comprehensive data includes priests and prisoners, accountants and artists, and subjects spanning ages 18-82 with the middle 35-65 being the most represented.

The largest swath of the adult population, 66.5%, and of managers, 83%, listen from level 2a or 2b. Level 2 is where organizational life happens. When employees do not feel heard, do not feel understood, cannot express themselves, or are misread, we can point to the pervasiveness of level two listening in managers.


Listening beyond Archie and Edith

all-in-the-family-carroll-oconnor-bunker2Referring to Column E in Tabel A, and in Cook-Grueters words, she uses “All in the Family” as an example of the first two mindsets. First, at Level 1 (red):

“ ‘Archie Bunker’-types … are self-protective, bull-headed and have tunnel vision, constantly blowing up and blaming others for what is happening to them. At times they have a biting humor that exposes others’ soft sides. Self-protective adults are concerned with their concrete little world. They show prejudice; polarize arguments and exploit others’ weaknesses.”

imgresAt Level 2a (lite blue):

Edith Bunker … takes all kinds of abuse by others, particularly her spouse Archie, but she stays with him. She is fluttering and fussing around him, always trying to be positive, to see the best in everybody and in everything. Edith finds pleasure in taking good care of her loved ones. However, the character Edith also displays an open-mindedness which is not typical of this stage.”

Listening at level 1 and level 2a waivers between defensive, controlling, conforming and debatingimages. Consider Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who responded as follows when asked about his belief in the Devil:

“You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.”

Scalia makes a crucial point. Intelligence and success do not suggest or reveal a level of listening. Awareness, not intelligence expands listening. Just knowing more will only get you so far — and that is level 2. To move beyond level 2 requires letting go of reliance on empirical knowledge (see “Development” Table B grid below). This is a missing distinction in our education and developmental models. Many highly intelligent people dig in at level two. Experts, specialists, physicians, college professors, CEOs, and consultants often listen through knowledge to prove or disprove another’s point of view. It would be a fatal error to conflate listening with IQ or success.

Level Two Traps

To underscore life at level 2, highlights listening from a more stable time — 1950s-1980s — a period when change was generational and not the norm (2a) or incremental (2b), which identifies change as regular and predictable. This listening is steeped in objective-based reality, knowledge, and expertise sometimes from anecdotal evidence or grounded beliefs (level 2a) or research, science, and data patterns (level 2b). See grid below:

The “Y” Axis (vertical): labeled openness ranks our open-mindedness to uncertainty. The “X” Axis (horizontal) labeled continuum of change defines our view of change.

Based on the evidence, and research on listening, I am suggesting something quite different: that our listening evolves from increased awareness at the intersection of two fundamental capacities: Level of OPENNESS and Continuum of CHANGE. This intersection at each level of listening, shown in Table B, highlights our openness to new ideas and our acceptance of change. (I will detail this in the next blog.)

As noted in Table B, levels 1 and 2 comprise about one-third of the grid but include 66.5% — or twice as much — of the adult population and 83% of our manager population.

Typical for Level 2 listeners, who “believe” they can plan for or predict change, whenever a problem arises with any new initiative, product, or service, these managers assume it’s for lack of knowledge or clarity. They convene meetings, create new PowerPoint decks, or conduct surveys to further explain the process, clarify details, and understand empirical situations. Level 2 listeners rely on knowledge.

What level 2 listeners miss, and cannot perceive is beyond knowledge: while workers will comply with directions or defined tasks, that is not the same as committing to initiatives or a new direction. For instance, workers tend to hold back performance if they do not feel heard, if ideas are not received, if a previous change initiative was never acknowledged, completed correctly or promptly, or if changes are imposed on and not created with those implementing it.

Only a Level 3 listener can perceive this gap. Neither clear process, detailed facts nor sound knowledge is the issue. Workers simply lack motivation, do not feel appreciated, nor trust what is being presented. A level two manager will insult worker’s intelligence or patronize them by repeating the facts, or explaining the process. A level three listener will confront and release the tension, and begin rebuilding the trust necessary to act newly.

Trying Two’s

Level two implies loyalty to empirical evidence and preconceived notions with a discipline that can lead to groupthink; it values both controlling and predicting circumstances (2a) or leverage circumstances for success (2b). It does not offer deep insights beyond knowledge (such as empathy) as required for successful teams of collaboration. Learning at level two values problem-solving and leveraging knowledge, not discovery or alternative perspectives.

Listening here is filtered through stable-order — viewing change as an anomaly — to seek out agreements, and build rather than confront consensus, and resists, ignores or denies disagreements. Communication occurs as debating, dominating with knowledge or expertise, lacking emotional intelligence, preferring explanation and analysis over understanding and support.

Vacillating between debating, explaining and seeking expertise leaves little room for new ideas at level 2a (lite blue). At level 2b (blue) new ideas can emerge through external knowledge, research, science, and rational approaches. Mastering stregnths at level 2b can offer a gateway to level 3 (green).

Even though level 2b individuals do not listen through level three, they may, as Steve Jobs did, surround themselves with level three listeners. Taken from Star Trek, Captain Kirk, from the original series, surrounded himself with Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock both of whom straddled level 3 to offer Kirk perspectives he might not otherwise see.

Doing vs Being

Examining listening through this model distinguishes being (increasing awareness) and doing (improving action). Each level evolves to expand and include the skills, strengths, and awareness of each previous level to grow into any mindset or capacity as a commitment.

The difference between increasing awareness (being) and improving action (doing) is quite remarkable, which I will explore in our next blog. Briefly, though … listening as “doing a skill” will occur as transactional or performing. Think of Donald Trump doing presidential vs. being presidential. We can do the things correctly, follow scripts, say what needs to be said, and look right, and never embody what it is to become any such mindset. Others feel, sense, and perceive the difference. Often it accounts for what we now term as an “authenticity” gap.

Anyone who has ever taken up any art, craft or sport will recognize this difference. We can learn skills to run. But if we wish to enter a marathon we must become a runner. Becoming a runner impacts our life: how we sleep, what we eat, drink, who we hang out with, choice of exercise routine, and even what we read and pay attention to. The experience of being a runner is quite distinct from someone who merely runs.

With practice, we expand awareness and evolve. For example, as noted in Table A, level 3 evolves from awareness, strengths, and experience at levels 1, 2a and 2b. Strengths from each level serve the next level. My next post, part 3 of the four-part series will discuss how life looks at level 3 (green) on empathy and the practices to break free of level 2 listening.

View, Commitment of Listening, part 1

View, Commitment of Listening, part 3

View, Commitment of Listening, Part 4.


tony-zampella-headshotTony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and practices his work develops mindsets for creating leadership cultures.

His studies include the work of Martin Heidegger and ontological inquiry, Ken Wilber, and Integral theory, and Zen Buddhism.