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  1. Blog
  2. Career Development
  3. May 10, 2024

The 6 Types of Listening & How to Really Tune In

Plus, examples of each

Woman listening on a FaceTime call
Photo courtesy of cottonbro studio

We’re told all the time to “be a good listener.” From elementary school to networking activities to romantic relationships, listening seems to be the key to making other people happy. No one wants to talk to someone whose mind is somewhere else or who is just waiting for their turn to say something smart.

It’s true that good listening leads more people to like you and want to talk to you. But it also helps you stay in the moment, connect on a deeper level with others, and build stronger relationships. Then, you’ll also attract other good listeners, and other people will be more likely to respond to you in the same active way. Good listening leads to more good listening.

Exploring what active listening really means and six types of listening will allow you to assess your own habits and how you can improve.

How do you become a better listener?

Good listeners practice patience and show true interest in what other people say. They ask follow-up questions and make eye contact, and their body language is engaged and welcoming. We all may strive to give this level of attention, but it’s easy to become distracted and to not realize how we’re coming off to others. How do you get better at active listening?

Psychologist Vara Saripalli says listeners should “remember the times when they felt heard by someone, and think about what made them feel that way. It could have been nodding, small verbalizations, an ability to recap what you said to them. Try and reproduce those things when you are listening to someone.”

Pay attention to cues and gestures and how you feel after talking to different people. This practice will not only help you incorporate their positive, affirming behaviors, but you’ll also be genuinely engaged and able to establish better connections.

Saripalli also suggests practicing recapping conversations, which affirms what people are saying to you. You can do this “either nonverbally to yourself or even out loud,” she says, “by saying something like ‘So what I heard you say is …’ This gets you out of the habit of always waiting for your chance to talk and gets you to focus on what the other person is saying.”

She advises listeners to practice speaking even when there are pauses in the conversation. “Make sure you’re not just waiting for your chance to jump in and say anything.” Show that you’re taking things in and processing what the other person said before adding your two cents.

Another big part of good listening is not interrupting. It’s easy for us to want to spit out the first thought that comes to mind, especially when we think the other party has it wrong. But this may only frustrate the other person, leading to tension and even conflict. Interrupting rarely shows you’re listening and engaged. Try to give it a beat after someone finishes talking to take your turn. 

“Active listening is work,” Saripalli says. It takes self-awareness, patience, and a commitment to be more giving in conversations.

Are there limits to active listening?

Even with all this active listening, remember that you can still set boundaries. You don’t have to suffer through a bad conversation if it’s a bad situation or you’ve just had enough. Saripalli says, “It can be hard to turn off a natural inclination to listen to and hear others, particularly for women who are socialized to listen.”

Ask yourself if you’re in the mood to really listen to someone. If you’re not, you can set a boundary. This will look different ways depending on who you’re talking to. “If talking to someone you know well, you can tell them you are too drained to be fully present for them at this moment. If it’s someone you know less well, feel free to say you have something else to attend to and step away,” Saripalli advises.

Being a good listener doesn’t mean you always have to listen, especially when you’re unable to be active and engaged. This leads to frustration with yourself and from the other party.

6 types of listening with examples of each

Listening can look a lot of different ways for many different situations. We also become better, more nuanced listeners the older we get and the more we learn to do with language and tone. 

Let’s look at six types of listening and where they might fit into your personal and professional lives:

1. Discriminative listening

This type of listening is a sort of base for other forms. It’s how we pay attention to absorb people’s inflection, tone and volume of voice, and even nonverbal cues like body language and facial expressions. 

While these characteristics may seem disconnected from the content of someone’s speech, they’re related. Someone can be a much more active listener by mastering discriminative listening first, which we usually do when we’re very young.

At work, it’s easier to keep things professional, so tone and body language may not be as telling. But it’s still a big part of how we perceive and hear the words of others.

Example of discriminative listening:

John is a manager at a software development company. He's leading a meeting with his team to discuss the progress of a new project. During the meeting, one of the team members, Sarah, expresses concerns about a particular aspect of the project timeline.

Instead of immediately dismissing Sarah's concerns or jumping in with his own perspective, John practices discriminative listening. He listens carefully to Sarah's words, paying attention not only to what she's saying but also to her tone of voice, body language, and underlying emotions.

John notices that Sarah seems frustrated and anxious as she talks about the tight deadline for a crucial deliverable. He picks up on subtle cues in her language, such as repeated phrases like "I'm really worried about this" and "I don't think we have enough time."

Instead of responding right away, John pauses to reflect on what Sarah has said. He acknowledges her concerns by paraphrasing them back to her, ensuring he understands her perspective correctly. He says, "It sounds like you're feeling overwhelmed by the deadline and unsure if we'll be able to meet it."

2. Comprehensive listening

Comprehensive listening refers to hearing and absorbing the meaning of the words and language someone is using, so the listener must know the appropriate vocabulary to understand the other person. This is hard to do, for example, if you don’t speak the language you’re hearing.

Note that discriminative listening skills are also usually part of comprehensive listening, as to fully understand someone, tone, inflection, and other factors play a big role.

Example of comprehensive listening:

Emily is a therapist who specializes in working with clients who have experienced trauma. She's meeting with a new client, Michael, for their first session. Michael has recently gone through a difficult breakup and is struggling with feelings of grief and loneliness.

As Emily listens to Michael share his story, she practices comprehensive listening. She not only pays attention to the words he's saying but also to his tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. She observes the way he fidgets with his hands and avoids eye contact when talking about his ex-partner, indicating his discomfort and sadness.

Instead of interrupting or offering immediate advice, Emily creates a safe and supportive environment for Michael to express himself fully. She nods empathetically, maintains eye contact, and offers verbal cues such as "I see" and "Tell me more" to encourage him to open up.

As Michael delves deeper into his emotions, Emily listens with compassion and without judgment. She validates his feelings by reflecting back what he's saying, paraphrasing his words, and acknowledging the complexity of his experience.

3. Empathetic listening

Empathetic listening requires a bit more effort and care. The listener focuses on how the speaker is feeling and how their emotions may shift. Empathy requires the ability to put yourself in another person’s position, so this is essentially what you’re trying to do when you’re practicing empathetic listening. 

This type of listening comes into play when you’re hearing a friend talk about something hard they’re going through. Parents also may practice listening with empathy with their children, remembering what it was like to learn and be excited about new things and wanting to affirm their thoughts and experiences.

But it can also apply to the workplace. Empathizing with your manager or coworker can help you understand what’s behind what they’re communicating. You can give people a break when they’re clearly going through something personal.

Remember the difference between empathy and compassion, both of which are important for effective listening. Compassion is more about withholding judgment and accepting other people as they are.

Example of empathetic listening:

Sarah is a high school counselor who is meeting with a student, Alex, who has been struggling with anxiety and low self-esteem. As Alex opens up about his struggles, Sarah practices empathetic listening.

She listens not only to the words Alex is saying but also to the underlying emotions and experiences he's sharing. She notices the tremor in his voice and the tears welling up in his eyes as he talks about feeling overwhelmed by academic pressure and social challenges.

Instead of immediately trying to problem-solve or offer advice, Sarah focuses on connecting with Alex on an emotional level. She nods in understanding, maintains a warm and supportive demeanor, and offers validating statements like "That sounds really tough" and "I can see why you're feeling that way."

Sarah puts herself in Alex's shoes, imagining what it must be like to navigate the complexities of adolescence while dealing with anxiety and self-doubt. She reflects back Alex's feelings, saying things like, "It sounds like you're feeling really anxious about fitting in with your peers" and "I hear that you're struggling to believe in yourself."

4. Critical listening

We’re taught to practice critical thinking as students. We read books and essays and answer questions to show our comprehension of the content.

Critical listening is similar. You’re paying attention to a speaker to analyze or critique what they’re saying. It may take problem-solving skills and an even more active presence. This type of listening may apply if we’re trying to make a decision, help someone make a decision, or pick apart a speech or presentation. At work, you may need to exercise critical listening when talking to a new client about their goals or giving a coworker feedback on their presentation.

Example of critical listening:

Mark is a college student attending a lecture on environmental sustainability. The guest speaker is presenting a new initiative aimed at reducing carbon emissions on campus. As Mark listens to the presentation, he engages in critical listening.

Instead of passively accepting the information presented, Mark actively evaluates the speaker's arguments, evidence, and reasoning. He listens for logical inconsistencies, gaps in the evidence, and potential biases that may influence the speaker's perspective.

5. Informational listening

Informational listening is—you guessed it—when you are learning information. Throughout our lives, we practice informational listening. When you take a class, watch the news, read statistics, or binge a true crime podcast, you’re listening to learn something and absorb information. 

There are many forms of informational listening at work. You may be attending a conference to learn about a new technology in your industry. You may be meeting with your boss about a new responsibility. Or you may be attending a training to learn a new skill. 

In all of these cases, you’re listening closely to learn something and perhaps apply it to your situation. 

Example of informational listening:

Jessica is a marketing manager attending a conference on digital marketing trends. She's eager to learn about the latest strategies and techniques to enhance her company's online presence. As she listens to the keynote speaker, Jessica engages in informational listening.

She focuses intently on absorbing the facts, statistics, and practical tips shared by the speaker. Jessica takes notes on her tablet, jotting down key points and actionable insights to share with her team back at the office.

6. Biased or selective listening

There’s also a form of listening centered around biases. It’s also referred to as selective listening because it’s essentially when you’re hearing only what you want to hear. Biased listening could also be when you’re only listening to someone for certain information that’s valuable to you. This type may also mean you have a bias that you’re trying to affirm in what you hear, so you don’t pay attention to components that don’t reaffirm this bias.

Selective listening may have its purpose—for example, when you’re multitasking and only need to hear certain parts of a lecture or speech—but it can get in the way of being truly present and engaging. 

Example of selective listening:

Mike is a project manager leading a team meeting to discuss the progress of an important project. As he presents updates and assigns tasks to team members, he notices that one of his colleagues, Sarah, seems disengaged and distracted.

Despite Mike's efforts to engage Sarah in the discussion, she appears to be selectively listening, focusing only on certain parts of the conversation while tuning out others. Mike observes that Sarah's attention perks up whenever topics related to her specific responsibilities are discussed, but she seems to lose interest when other team members share their updates.

As the meeting progresses, Mike notices that Sarah consistently fails to follow through on action items assigned to her and misses important deadlines. He realizes that her selective listening is affecting the team's productivity and cohesion.

Roundup of active listening tips

Let’s break down all the ways you can improve your listening skills to have more meaningful, successful interactions in any setting:

  • Make eye contact. 

  • Don’t interrupt.

  • Use empathy.

  • Show compassion.

  • Consider their words at present, not your next ones.

  • Give nonverbal cues, like a nod or a soft, affirmative sound.

  • Show engaging body language, like facing the person.

  • Meet them at their level (sit if they’re sitting).

  • Practice affirming phrases like, “So what I hear you saying is…”

  • Be willing to put in the work.

Harnessing these strategies and putting them into practice will help you engage with people, become more likable, and create stronger bonds with others.

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