Do You Listen “To” or Listen “For”?

Do You Listen “To” or Listen “For”?

Recently we were delivering training to a group of executives who are committed to developing their internal leadership talent by personally facilitating monthly learning forums. As part of the training we had them each complete our Coaching Skills Assessment to identify the skills used in coaching and mentoring. We asked them to share what skills they identified as their strengths and which skills were identified as development areas. The resounding response on the skill needing development was “Listening and observing”. Discussion followed on how each of them found themselves listening “to” the information for answers they were seeking, versus listening “for” to better understand what the person communicating was intending.

The training was followed by a coaching session I had with another client who had just participated in a 360 Feedback process. In reviewing their 360 report results, the consistent theme expressed in the written comments by each of the rater groups was poor listening skills. The leader was surprised and disappointed that they were not seen as an effective communicator due to their listening skills. Their initial reaction was, “Maybe it is not my listening, but more about their not wanting to hear my answer, especially if I am have to tell them no.”

This consistent theme of poor listening caused me to reflect further on why listening is so difficult. I thought about my own experiences, knowing when I am truly listening to someone I have to be 100% present in the conversation and focused entirely on them. To do so requires a great deal of energy and discipline. It means staying present in the experience and being truly interested in learning more about the person. I also recognized that my ability to listen is what promotes trust in the relationship. Then I thought about what happens when I feel someone is genuinely listening to me and I recognized it resulted in my being much more open, often times sharing information at a deeper level, and in turn having a stronger connection to the person who demonstrated active listening skills. I also realized that certain relationships require stronger listening skills until you have created the level of trust.

The following  addresses the 2 very distinct styles of listening, each having their place, with Level 2 requiring the most skill and discipline. The descriptors are intended to provide clarity on knowing when you are listening at what level so you can be more intentional when you are in the role of listener.

 Level 1 Listening – “To”:  

  • Our focus is on what is being said means to us
  • Can be fun and relaxing
  • Conversation stays at the surface level
  • Often times we are waiting to talk
  • We focus our thoughts and our comfort or discomfort with the situation the person is in, and how we would handle it, on our judgments and feelings about the situation and the people in it
  • We interrupt and chime in frequently
  • We ask leading questions

Level 2 Listening – “For”:

  • Our focus is on the other person
  • We stay in the present moment
  • Listen for the meaning behind words and the underlying beliefs and mindsets of the person speaking
  • Paraphrase for clarity
  • We pay attention to the persons’ words, expressions, emotions and areas of conflict. Notice what makes them “light up” and what makes them lose energy.
  • We use good eye contact and head nods
  • We ask open-ended questions

In closing, I am providing some examples of when it’s the best time to rely on your Level 2 listening skills:

  • In your role as Manager/Supervisor  to learn more about your employees’ strengths, aspirations and goals
  • In your role of providing customer service to better understand your internal or external customers’ needs
  • When you are in a new role in an organization and want to learn the culture and values
  • When you want to build trust in a new or ongoing relationship
  • When you want to understand the source of  conflict or friction in your relationship
  • When you are communicating with someone from a different background than your own

 So… do you notice yourself listening “To” or listening “For”?


  1. June Dudas says:

    Excellent article. I really like the quick application tips. Active listening is definitely a skill I need to work on and not an easy one to remember, at least not for me. I find myself slipping into the habit of “To” listening because it is faster and I’m in a rush. I’ve seen the power, both positive and negative, of my listening style and know that the time is worth it to listen “For” that deeper understanding. Thanks!

  2. Sharon Bottomley says:

    Although I am not presently in a supervisory position at work, I certainly can apply this information to interactions with co-workers and loved ones. Obviously, the different styles have quite different outcomes. I am learning and enjoying from a variety of your podcasts. Thanks for the awareness.

  3. Excellent article, I had never thought of listening in such a cogent way.

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