Types of listening skills and when to use them

Listening is a vital skill for success in the workplace. In this post we dig a little deeper, exploring 7 types of listening skills and when to use each one.

There is a difference between truly listening and waiting for your turn to talk. Ralph Waldo Emerson

There are many types of listening skills, they are all much more than just “waiting for your turn to talk”. The key to success is to know when to use each listening skill, to achieve your objectives for the conversation.

Types of listening skills to meet your own needs

These first 2 listening skills are focused primarily on meeting your own needs. Yes, there are times when this is appropriate!

1. Combative listening

The goal: listening to win! Perhaps you’re facing someone who may be a little unreasonable, it’s likely a short-term relationship (perhaps a single transaction), and the transaction outcome is more important to you than the relationship. For example, you’re buying a house (let’s assume it’s a house you really want, but the owner is asking above market rates).

The listening skill: your focus is on listening for flaws in the person’s logic, possible weaknesses, opportunities to create advantage for yourself. You create more opportunities for yourself by asking the appropriate questions. You’re not in this for the long-term, you don’t want to build a relationship. Of course, your manner is polite, this is not about being aggressive, it’s about calmly getting what you want.

2. Appreciative listening

The goal: listening to indulge yourself. This type of listening is quite unique from all the other forms of listening. You’re not in a conversation and the experience of listening really is the benefit itself. You are listening to relax and indulge yourself. Perhaps you’re listening to instrumental music, or a song, or even just relaxing and listening to the sounds of the home around you.

The listening skill: you’ve heard the expression “I got lost in the music”? That is appreciative listening. You give up your agenda, even give up yourself, and just let the sounds take you. You listen to experience, to be ‘in the moment’ and to be appreciative of the opportunity.

Types of listening to achieve specific business outcomes

Once we get beyond meeting our own needs, we move into this second group of listening skills. The focus here is on achieving a specific business outcome.

3. Open listening

The goal: listening to explore opportunities. Perhaps you’re in a proposal meeting, and want to explore the business opportunity, or perhaps a close colleague is pitching you an idea. You’re open to the opportunity and want to build on what is being said.

The listening skill: take some time to suspend your agenda and suspend your critical listening (that can come later). Turn on your positivity and, as you’re listening, let your ideas flow. You have plenty of ‘mental bandwidth’ (you can think much quicker than other people can talk), so use that bandwidth to ideate. Don’t interrupt, but mentally build from what you’re hearing. Be open to the possibilities!

4. Analytical listening

The goal: listening to evaluate opportunities and take action. We’ve explored open listening, above. At some point you’re going to need to make decisions, planning next steps and moving forward.

The listening skill: you need to become more analytical (this is sometimes called critical listening). This is about evaluating what is being said. You need to quickly decide the criteria by which you’re making the evaluation: speed, cost, level of risk, level of profit, these are just some typical evaluation criteria. Then use these criteria to evaluate what you’re listening to and make choices about what will best meet the business need.

5. Active listening

The goal: listening to build the relationship. Perhaps this is a new relationship, and important to you. It could be a new colleague, a new manager, a new customer. You may be face-to-face, or you may be virtual. Whatever the context, building the relationship is an important part of the outcome.

The listening skill: listening in a way that demonstrates you’re listening and helps to build engagement. (Yes, it could be argued that this is always useful, but there are times when it’s particularly important.) This is active listening. First, clear your mind and suspend your own agenda. Then: lean in, nod, use mini affirmations (‘yup’, ‘I see’, ‘hmm’ to signal without interrupting), keep good eye contact, paraphrase, summarize, ask questions. Demonstrate that you’re listening and encourage the person to share.

2 types of listening focused on meeting the needs of others

These last 2 types of listening skills are focused primarily on meeting the needs of others. Each type of listening does this in a slightly different way.

6. Empathetic listening

The goal: listening to embrace the emotion. This is all about feeling the emotions of the speaker. This is often described as the highest level of listening. In some contexts, this may be true, but in a business context empathetic listening is less useful that compassionate listening (see below).

The listening skill: suspend your agenda, suspend your rational mind. Tune in to what is being said, how it’s being said and the emotions that the person is conveying through their tone, gestures and body language. Let yourself feel, experience the emotions yourself. In a business context, particularly during times of high stress, the danger is that you share the other person’s suffering. Do this too much of the time and you’ll burn out and be less able to help.

7. Compassionate listening

The goal: listening with the intention to help. This type of listening is very focused on finding solutions and providing support.

The listening skill: this is literally listening with a different part of the brain to empathetic listening. With compassionate listening you engage the prefrontal cortex (sometimes known as the ‘executive brain’). You’re not feeling the emotion, you’re entirely focused on a clear intention: to find solutions. In many ways this is a more sustainable and empowering type of listening, especially within the workplace.

Types of listening skills in summary

Listening skills are critical for business success. There are many types, each should be used with a clear intent and at the appropriate time depending on your goal:

  1. Combative listening: to win
  2. Appreciative listening: to indulge yourself
  3. Open listening: to explore opportunities
  4. Analytical listening: to evaluate opportunities and take action
  5. Active listening: to build the relationship
  6. Empathetic listening: to embrace the emotion
  7. Compassionate listening: with the intention to help

For more on listening skills, take a look at the Chinese character for listening.