Two words in the English language appear to be ambiguous and have over-lapping meaning:  Hearing and  Listening. Are they the same or do they mean different things? Let’s examine and understand.

Hearing is the act of perceiving sound and receiving sound waves or vibrations through your ear. Hearing simply happens and is involuntary. Hearing is a skill where you use your ears only and is one of the five senses. Listening, on the other hand, is the act of hearing a sound and understanding what you hear. Listening requires concentration so that your brain processes meaning from words and sentences.

All of us must have at some point or the other heard ourselves saying to someone – “Are you listening to me?” we often say this with impatience and a degree of frustration.
So why do we say this?

Perhaps because though we may not know the dictionary meaning of these words – hearing and listening – but in our sub-conscience minds, we know that hearing is different from listening. We know instinctively that someone sitting right across may be hearing what you are saying but may not necessarily be paying attention to what is being said. That is – not listening. And that makes us feel exasperated and helpless – because we also know that we may be able to make people hear, but we cannot forcefully ensure active listening.

According to Prof Claus Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, listening is one of the most underrated skills and often taken for granted. Listening is most underestimated as one of the prerequisites for leadership roles. Lack of listening skills can often lead to a disconnect between team leaders and the situation.

Scharmer believes that listening is “at the root of everything”, and says there are four types of listening, two of which many are already familiar with – listening where “we attend to what we already know” and factual listening, where we learn something new. But according to Scharmer, people today need to master two more types of listening – empathic listening, where we are able to put ourselves in another’s place, and what Scharmer calls generative listening, where we see another person in terms of past, present and future possibilities.

Scharmer describes four levels of listening:


When transferring information that is already largely familiar, people only listen to reconfirm what they already know. For example, listening to a familiar song on the radio. We tend to sing along with the lyrics we already know and fall silent when these become unfamiliar. Simply put, we are only listening to what has already been downloaded in our minds and are unwilling to memorize new lyrics.
This kind of listening is casual and lacks focus or the desire to learn anything new.


People only listen attentively when the information is different from what they know. This new information is added to the information that is already known. This might well apply to listening to the news or to a news podcast. For instance, would anyone ever listen to yesterday’s news broadcast with real interest? On the other hand, breaking news invokes immediate interest as we anticipate new and fresh information.
Most of us, as Scharmer says, often indulge in these two kinds of listening. But what he says most people need to work on are the following. As long as we operate from the first two types of listening, our listening originates from within the boundaries of our own mental-cognitive organization and remains largely limited to it.


This is the third and deeper level of listening. By empathizing and seeing through someone else’s eyes, people are able to understand and respect the other person.

When we genuinely say to someone – “Oh, yes, I know exactly how you feel” we are being empathetic. This deeper level of listening is empathic listening. When we are engaged in real dialogue and are paying careful attention, we can become aware of a profound shift in the place from which our listening originates.

Our perception shifts from our own organization/agenda, to the other, to the place from which the other person is speaking. When moving into that mode of listening we have to activate our empathy by connecting directly, heart to heart, to the other person.

It requires an open heart to really feel how another person feels. An open heart gives us the empathic capacity to connect directly with another person from within. When that happens, we enter new territory in the relationship; we forget about our own agenda and begin to see how the world appears through someone else’s eyes…When operating in this mode, we usually feel what another person wants to say before the words take form.


This is the fourth level of listening. People listen to create without their personalities getting in the way of results. By connecting their own intuition with the environment, they tap into pure thoughts and ideas.
When you operate from empathic listening, your perspective is redirected to seeing the situation through the eyes of another: “Yes, now I really understand how you feel about it. I can sense it now too.” And finally, when you operate from generative listening, you have gone through a subtle but profound change that has connected you to a deeper source of knowing, including the knowledge of your best future possibility and self.
“I can’t express what I experience in words. My whole being has slowed down. I feel more quiet, present and more my real self. I am connected to something larger than myself.”  “

So how do we use these 4 levels of listening in our work lives? Sharing some possibilities…

– Can empathetic listening help me better understand a client’s requirements?
– Can generative listening help in generating new ideas?
– Can new ideas lead to innovation?
– Can supporting and contributing to innovation make an ed-tech organization develop more robust products?
– Can sales teams perform better if they are empathetic?
– Can we develop improved marketing strategies once we have a clear understanding of what the market is looking for?

Food for thought…..!!!
More on this next week. Watch this space…..and keep listening…!!!

Sources and Further literature

Otto Scharmer on the 4 levels of listening:

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