The Four Levels of Listening

The Four Levels of Listening

The Four Levels of Listening

Have you ever been in a meeting and felt you are not being listened to? Have you ever been coaching someone and been distracted? This blog article explores the four levels of listening as defined by academic and author Otto Sharmer.

The fundamental principle of Otto Sharmer’s work suggests that there are four levels of listening:

  • Downloading
  • Factual listening
  • Empathetic listening
  • Generative listening

Let’s take one level at a time.

Level 1 – Downloading

This is probably more likely to be just hearing rather than listening. When downloading takes place, then it is normally just that – downloading information. The person who is downloading is just passively receiving information and not really paying attention to what is being said. Often the other person has the attitude of, ‘I already know this’ or ‘My mind is already made up’. The other person is listening to respond rather than listening to understand.

An example of Downloading is: ‘Yeah, I get what you mean but we already do this’. Often someone Downloading doesn’t even offer a verbal response and their body language can appear distracted or not interested.

The consequences of Level 1 – Downloading, are that ideas get missed, contributions are minimised and motivation drops.

Level 2 – Factual Listening

This is the next level of listening. At this level listening is no longer passive. Whereas Downloading is very much about closed minds, Factual Listening requires an open mind, where the listener is accepting of new information, ideas and ways of thinking. The listener is prepared to understand and accept the facts offered.

An example of Factual Listening is: ‘Wow, that’s interesting. We can use that’. Factual listeners will show genuine interest in what is being said, although this is often restricted to facts rather than feelings.

The consequences of Level 2 – Factual Listening, are that contributions are recognised and motivation increases. People feel purposeful and minds can be changed.

Level 3 – Empathetic Listening

This level is very much about emotional connection. Empathy is very much about respecting and understanding the other person’s perspective. Empathy is not sympathy or agreeing with the other person’s views. Instead, empathetic listening is very much about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

An example of Empathic Listening is: ‘Gosh, I can only begin to imagine how you feel. Even so, I am glad that you have told me’. Empathetic listeners demonstrate active listening skills, showing genuine interest through voice tone and body language as well as using sensitive, often 'open' questions to explore options and feelings. 

The consequences of Level 3 – Empathetic Listening, are that communication shifts up to a different level. Suddenly you are on the same emotional wavelength as the other person. This is more about feelings and emotions than facts. True understanding can take place, even if solutions are not found.

Level 4 – Generative Listening

According to Otto Sharmer, it is at this level that change takes place. Both parties are engaged in a conversation where ideas are shared and progress is made. Solutions are worked upon in a collaborative way with each person feeding off each other to generate the best possible outcome. With Generative Listening, change takes place.

An example of Generative Listening is: ‘I see what you mean. It makes sense. What if we did this as well?’. Generative listeners demonstrate high degrees of interest and collaboration, focusing on future possibilities and solutions.  

The consequences of Level 4 – Generative Listening, are that engagement levels are high, problems are solved and relationships develop. Motivation and confidence increase and that sense of collaboration increases commitment.


Time, office politics, relationships and other variables, such as physical and mental distractions, often get in the way of listening. However, effort does need to be made to get beyond Level 2 – Factual Listening if true change is to take place.

Paul Beesley

Director and senior consultant, Beyond Theory

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