Listening on Five Levels*
The purpose of this model is to help us listen to more than words. The five levels are: The head (thoughts or facts), heart (emotions), needs (stomach), clothes (culture), and intentions (feet). Each of the levels is interconnected and interdependent.
For example: “When I heard you swearing at me it became clear to me that you did not respect and understand me. That made me very depressed and angry because I don’t believe that that is how one should behave. What I would like you to do in future is to ask me for my side of the story.”
The facts: You swore at me
The emotions: Depressed and angry
The needs: Understanding, identity, protection
The culture: This is not how I believe one should behave
The intentions: To ask for a change in behaviour
This example shows that communication happens on various levels and through different types of dynamics. In order for us to be good listeners, it we need to to be clear about the role we want to play:
- Am I a facilitator of understanding who helps the other see themselves and find their own answers and resolve conflicts?
- Am I a partner that listens with a view to build a new community together?
- Am I an explorer that is interested in fact finding?
The speaker may or may not indicate to you which role he/she wants us to play. Do not assume that the listener wants advice or direction. Listening on all five levels is a difficult, but an important empowering exercise for both the speaker and listener.
- Listening to the thoughts of the other is fairly easy. All one has to do is to say back, in your own words, the facts our thoughts that you heard from the other person. One has to “find out what’s happening in the other person’s head” as clearly as possible. The listener basically has to help the speaker see the full picture of what that person is describing. You would often find that as you paraphrase the facts, the speaker will say: “Exactly! And what’s more, …”. That is a good sign, because the person finds your reflections helpful and fill you in on details that matter to him/her. Or, you may find that the person is saying: “No, not exactly that. In fact, what happened was…”. That is also a good sign, because the person is given an opportunity to make sure the two of you have the same understanding of the facts.
Be very careful not to allow your curiosity to take the upper hand. It is not your story. So, stay away from asking questions that would satisfy your curiosity. Allow the other person to share what he or she wants to share.
- Listening to the emotions is more difficult. Many people find it difficult to show or talk about how they feel. If someone says: “I feel that Mary was wrong when she said…” or “I feel that things are going to get worse…”, you should know that the person has not expressed an emotion or feeling. Rather, the person has expressed a thought.
It is very important that the listener helps the speaker to name his/her emotions. If people don’t express how they feel, the feelings build up and cause people to lose their ability to think clearly. That could lead to actions such violence or suicide. On the other hand, connecting to and expressing emotions serves as a safety valve and relief.
When needs are being met are people feel confident, excited, grateful, hopeful, inspired, joyful, peaceful, refreshed, etc.
When needs are not being met people may feel afraid, angry, irritated, appalled, confused, hesitant, disconnected, disturbed, uncomfortable, embarrassed, burnt out, devastated, hurt, lonely, miserable, remorseful, sad, depressed, disappointed, unhappy, hopeless, tense, bitter, edgy, nervous, overwhelmed, restless, stressed out, vulnerable, envious, jealous, etc.
- Listening to the stomach refers to listening to the needs. The stomach reminds us of unmet needs like hunger, thirst, etc. But there are many more needs that people are not even aware of. Manfred Max-Neef has developed a list of 9 fundamental human needs: Subsistence, Protection, Affection, Understanding, Participation, Leisure, Creation, Identity, and Freedom. These needs, if not met, drive conflict and determine our behaviour. For instance: If someone discriminates against me, my needs for identity, understanding and freedom are seriously frustrated and I will probably confront that person and something ugly can happen. If we understand, however, that all human beings have the same needs but they choose different satisfiers, we would be better able to understand and empathise with others. The conflict is about the satisfiers—not the needs. Dialogue is a powerful approach to express needs and talk about constructive ways to achieve win-win solutions. Some satisfiers may look like satisfiers, but in fact they are destroyers. For example: When someone is stressed out there is a need for understanding, leisure and freedom. If the the person chooses satisfiers such as chain smoking, drink alcohol excessively or take harmful medication all the time, these satisfiers are in fact destroying the needs for subsistence, protection, freedom and identity. In the listening process, the listener should help the speaker identify the needs and explore the range of possible alternative satisfiers that satisfy a combination of needs. Then the conversation can move on to the next phase of uncovering the intentions or will.
- Listening to the intentions or will means that the listener helps the speaker get clarity on what is the next step for him or her. What does the person want to do about the situation? And what would the speaker want to see happening? It is important to stay clear from the temptation to give advice. The person who presents the problem has to take the lead in finding and owning solutions to the problem.
- The clothes represent the culture, values and beliefs. The listener should attempt to understand where the views and beliefs of the speaker come from. For example, a police person coming from a “police culture” will describe a conflict differently from a university lecturer who comes from an “academic or university culture”; men and women, young people and the older generation, employees and employers, generally speaking, express themselves differently in many ways. Each group—whether it be the civil servants, NGOs, the UN, private sector, opposition, government, and the rest—understands “the way we do things around here”. Members of these “cultures” are not necessary aware of how they think and behave. The listener can help the speaker to become more aware of how culture, values and beliefs have shaped him/her.
The task of the listener is to listen and explore at all five levels—not to advise and to hijack the agenda of the speaker.
* Hamo Hammond of Catalyst Consulting (firstname.lastname@example.org) has generously shared his wisdom, contributing to sharpen the ideas. The Five Level Listening Model is an expansion of the module Levels Of Listening: a few helps and hindrances in a "facilitating organizational development" training course.