Listening Made Simple Part I: Listening to Ourselves

Updated: Sep 14

Listening is a muscle that is hard to flex, but it is the first step in starting important conversations we need to have. Remote work complicates our communication rhythms. The racial justice movement has highlighted deeply rooted injustices in our society. Anger and violence is the result of fear, misunderstanding and blame. If we are willing to come to the table, listen, ask questions, and show curiosity, we can find the answers we need to make meaningful and lasting change.


Listening is a first step in a much longer and more complex healing process. This blog is part one of a two part blog series on listening, designed to make learning to listen simple. If you are already an ace listener, please share this blog with a friend, or feel free to use content in training that could help others. Part one focuses on listening to ourselves. Part two will emphasize listening to others.

Levels of Listening

You may be familiar with the "levels of listening" model. There are lots of variations on this model. This one is based on coaching training from the Co-Active Training Institute.

Levels of Listening - Co-Active Training Institute

Level 1: Internal Listening

Listening to ourselves and the voices and stories in our heads. We may hear, but we are waiting to speak.


Level 2: Focused Listening

Listening to what others say and what might be behind what they are saying. Listening to the possible feelings present.


Level 3: Global Listening

Listening beyond words to what is being shown through body language and intuitive perceptions.


Most workshops focus on learning the second and third levels, with level two presented as the goal for most day-to-day listening needs. Level one is often forgotten or ignored, potentially even being presented as something to avoid. Unless we are able to listen to ourselves and be in level one mindfully, there's little chance of being able to listen well to others. The reality is that it takes a lot of energy to get beyond level one because it is on all the time.


So, what does it mean to listen to ourselves?


Listening to ourselves means being present with ourselves and more aware of our needs, feelings, judgments, mental models and stories. Listening to ourselves might sound like inner judgments of ourselves or of others. Learn how to identify the needs behind your judgments in our self-coaching blog on inventorying personal needs. There are lots of ways to become more present and self-aware. Start by learning about what your needs are and ways to ask for them of yourself and of others. Develop better self-care routines to help you honor those needs and take time for yourself. This may feel selfish, but this is the work of becoming a good listener for others who are important in your life. As they say in the airline industry, "put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others."


Mental Models

Once you begin to listen better to yourself, you may notice that you have a deeply rooted judgment or reoccurring story. It takes time and lots of self-reflection to notice and become aware of these judgments, but it's important to acknowledge that we all have our own mental models, or ways of viewing the world. Mental models can be unique to individuals, organizations, families, regions and even generations. They can be small or large.


For example:

  • Peanut butter spreads better with a spoon.

  • If I take a vitamin everyday, I will not get sick.

  • If someone yells at me on the street, they mean to do me harm.

  • Staying in one job for many years is a sign of a good career.

  • The more likes I get on my Facebook post, the more people must like me.

  • If I don't agree with the news, it must be fake.

Mental models are not necessarily truths for everyone, but they are truths for ourselves. It's possible that the mental models you hold serve you well, but it's also possible that as we go through life, we may become stuck or hindered by them. We may also be hindering others by hanging onto mental models that no longer serve in a diverse and complex global community.


Changing a mental model takes time and effort, but it is possible. Let's start with understanding mental models and where they come from.

We are meaning-making machines. We are constantly taking in information and using it to make sense of the world. And over time, we create inner filing cabinets, so that every time a piece of data comes in—somebody says something, or we hear something in the news—our brains sort it automatically into it's appropriate cabinet. Over time, we may create filing cabinets that no longer serve ourselves or those around us, and it's really hard to open up the cabinet and re-sort everything in there. There's nothing wrong with you. It's biological. We were able to survive our caveman days, because we were able to file threats and potential dangers quickly. It's possible that we had ancestors who were slower to form mental models. They were surely all eaten by saber-toothed tigers, and those of us who evolved now have challenges separating a stressful email from actual physical harm.


The world is asking a lot of people to re-sort their filing cabinets right now.

And that can make many feel like this...

Ladder of Inference

The Ladder of Inference model from Chris Argyris and Peter Senge—thought leaders and experts in systems thinking and organizational learning—helps explain how mental models are formed.

  1. We take in data through observation of reality and facts.

  2. We select facts based on our experiences.

  3. We interpret those facts and give them personal meaning.

  4. We make assumptions based on the meaning that we give.

  5. We come to conclusions based on patterns of assumptions.

  6. We form beliefs, or mental models, which become ingrained.

  7. We act on these beliefs.

These beliefs then bypass data and observations, so we begin to automatically look for data that confirms our beliefs.


The question then becomes, how do we re-sort our cabinets and form new beliefs? The answer? We start listening to ourselves and learn how we learn. We become detectives of our own minds.

Try This: Self-Listening Journal Activity (15-30 minutes)

Want to listen and journal? Use this audio track.


This is a guided reflection process to help break down a challenge and form a different way of looking at it. Use this process anytime you feel yourself slipping into judgments of self and others that you want to change.


This process mirrors the Kolb learning model for adult experiential learning, where we breakdown an experience into facts, feelings, learnings and new action.

First, think of something that you are currently challenged by. Make this something that you haven't really figured out yet, and just for practice, make it something that isn't too large or deeply rooted. An ongoing family issue may be too big, but something someone said that bothered you or something that happened in a meeting that hit you the wrong way, may be a good place to start.


Use this series of questions to reflect on this experience and design next steps for yourself. Take as much time as you need for each question.

  1. What happened? What is the who, what, when and where? Just the facts please, ma'am/sir. During the meeting where we were planning our workshop yesterday, Julie said that she wanted to tell participants to keep their cameras on. Marvin said that he agreed and that he thought this would help make sure that people are paying attention. I jumped in and said that we shouldn't force people to be on camera. Julie and Marvin both presented opposite opinions to mine. The meeting ended without resolution on this topic.

  2. What did you think and feel? No reflection is needed. Just note feelings and thoughts, as many as you can that you can think of. I felt defensive and angry. I thought that this was a stupid idea. I remembered learning in a workshop that forcing people to be on camera would make them feel policed and potentially too vulnerable. I felt unheard and also scared.

  3. What story might you be telling yourself? If you were telling a friend what happened, how would you tell the tale? We often tell ourselves a story where we are the victims, and someone else is the villain, or that we must rescue someone. It's up to me to make sure that we do the workshop correctly. Marvin and Julie don't have the kind of experience that I have. They don't know that they are talking about. I'm scared that we might create a situation that would hurt the outcomes of the workshop.

  4. What's another story or possible way of looking at this? Take another look at the facts. What other stories might be possible with the same data and information. Put yourself in the shoes of another person involved. How might they weave the tale using the same information? Marvin's possible perspective - I'm uncomfortable facilitating virtually because I cannot see people's faces. That makes me feel that having cameras on should be mandatory.

  5. What have you learned from looking at this challenge through another perspective? What are you now aware of? Fear is a big driver of strong opinions. I'm scared, too. Maybe we are all a little fearful right now. Perhaps we need to help each other feel more empowered rather than scared.

  6. What might you need to learn more about? Is there missing information that would paint a broader story or different picture? I need to ask Marvin and Julie what is behind the need to have cameras on. Maybe there are some other things we can do to engage with participants so that Marvin and Julie feel more comfortable, without forcing people to be on camera.

  7. What is your next step or steps for this challenge? I will ask for another planning meeting, and I will set a personal intention to listen and ask questions.

  8. What feedback will you give yourself right now to help you in the future? Before advocating for my opinion, I will aim to understand the needs of others first.

Continue your listening journey in Part II.

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