Ad-libs: The five levels of listening

Ad-libs: The five levels of listening

By John Foust
Raleigh, NC

ListenLyle is an advertising manager who understands the value of listening. “One of my first bosses talked incessantly,” he told me. “She boasted about her intelligence and acted like no one else’s ideas were worth considering. Every now and then – usually in staff meetings – she’d say, ‘I’m not a good listener,’ then she’d keep on talking.

“One day, she announced that the secret to being a good listener was to sit on your hands. Since most people gesture when they talk, she thought sitting on your hands would turn you into a better listener. That was ridiculous, because all it would do is remind you to stop talking so much. But when you’re not talking, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re listening. The funny thing about her so-called secret was that no one in the ad department ever saw her sitting on her hands or doing anything else to become a better listener.”

Lyle said, “I’ve learned that listening is a crucial sales skill. There’s a lot of useful information out there – online, books, seminars – for ad managers to share with their sales staffs. One of my favorite concepts involves five levels of listening: Ignore, Pretend, Selective, Attentive and Empathic.”

Let’s take a closer look at Lyle’s listening breakdown:

  1. Ignore: “Although this is not listening in a technical sense, it’s a response to a listening situation,” Lyle said. “Ignoring a person who is speaking is totally unacceptable, both in one-on-one and in group settings.”

This can be seen as a form of punishment. For example, Person A ignores Person B, because he or she is angry or hurt. Or it may be a signal of perceived superiority or dislike.

  1. Pretend. “This is almost as bad,” he explained, “but it doesn’t intentionally try to damage the other person.”

Pretend-listening is often accompanied by fake smiling and excess head-nodding, none of which is likely to fool the other person. And if the speaker asks the pretender’s opinion, the phony will be exposed.

  1. Selective: “We’re all guilty of this at times,” said Lyle. “It’s a little like skimming through a book until you see something that interests you. But along the way, it’s easy to miss things. And the person who is speaking can be distracted by not having the other person’s full attention.”
  1. Attentive: “Now we’re getting somewhere,” he said. “This is where the listener pays close attention to the speaker. It becomes a dialogue, where the listener picks up details and asks for clarification.”
  1. Empathic: “This is the highest level,” Lyle said. “Some people call it reflective listening. When you empathize with another person, you understand their situation and hear them out. You’re demonstrating that what they’re saying is important, and you’re getting in-step with them. You can ask questions, of course, but the objective is to gain deeper understanding and not to change the subject.”

What’s Lyle’s bottom line? “Be a better listener. You’ll not only sell more, you’ll have better overall rapport with people.”


John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. E-mail for information:

(c) Copyright 2015 by John Foust. All rights reserved.