The 5 Types of Listening Every Leader Must Learn

Let’s cut to the chase here!

Whenever leadership advice gets doled out, you can expect to hear someone say, “it pays to be a better listener.”

And they’re right, to a point.

On the surface, listening makes sense to us. If we want to know what others find most meaningful, and if we’re going to become more effective problem solvers, it all starts with seeking to understand the other person and the nuances of the situation.

Yet, how can we fully understand listening if we haven’t been given an operational definition of the term and the various styles of listening that exist?

*Hint- it’s more complicated than whittling it down to “active listening.”

We know that everyone shouldn’t be taught and communicated in the same way, and if listening is foundational to sound communication, then why aren’t we getting more specific with how we wield this tool?

If you’re like me in that you despise cliches and instead wish to put the information you learn to use in real-time, then keep reading.


Listening is the learned process of receiving, interpreting, recalling, evaluating, and responding to verbal and non-verbal messages.

Notice the nuance shown in that definition. Listening isn’t merely a matter of information coming into your earhole; it’s an intricate process of discovering, decoding, deciding, and even delivering a response in some way.

But what if I told you that even the “receiving” aspect is more intricate than you thought?

The truth is that just as different drives make different people tick, there are 5 main types of listening that all have varying effects on those we wish to help.

When you match the right style of listening to the right moment, the right situation, and the right individual, you are on the fast track to building rapport and deeper understanding.

Without further ado, here are the five types of listening that you need to be more aware of, along with a more detailed breakdown below

  • Discriminative
  • Comprehension
  • Evaluative
  • Empathetic
  • Appreciative

“But what does it all mean?!”

I’m glad you asked. Let’s dive in.

Discriminative Listening: 

This is the most common form of listening that takes place. With discriminative listening, the goal is to scan and discern the origin of auditory stimuli. 

Whether you’re a hunter trying to determine if it was an animal or the wind you heard in the distance, or if you’re a mother trying to figure out if you heard your baby crying on the monitor. Whenever you’re making a decision based upon the nature of auditory (and sometimes visual) stimuli you’ve received- you’re leaning on discriminative listening.

Comprehension Listening: 

Here, the goal is to learn and fully absorb content for educational purposes. Those with a bad habit of thinking about how they will reply to a message, even as a message itself is being delivered by someone else, interrupt the learning process and fail at utilizing this listening style properly.

Anytime a situation calls for you to listen closely to and interpret central facts, key ideas, statistics, main ideas, and other forms of detailed messaging, you are leaning upon the comprehension style of listening.

It’s also the default whenever two strangers meet one another for the first time or while attending lectures, conducting interviews, or watching a documentary.

Evaluative Listening: 

As opposed to comprehension listening, which focuses on listening for educational purposes, evaluative listening (sometimes called critical listening) is centered upon evaluating the merits or strength of the message itself.

Reflect upon a time when someone was trying to negotiate with you or convince you of something in real-time. If the individual was attempting to influence your attitudes, beliefs, or actions, you are best served to rely on an evaluative style of listening. 

An important note: This listening style requires a much higher level of attentiveness given the stakes that usually accompany the possible outcomes of being persuaded to take action you otherwise may not have taken.

A great evaluative listener knows to focus not only on what is being said but also on what is NOT being said. 

Empathetic Listening: 

The easiest way to think of empathetic listening is “listening to connect.” This listening style is more about understanding someone else’s feelings than deep-diving into the content of what they are saying itself. Most often, it takes place when we listen to someone who needs to vent or who comes to us overwhelmed by emotion.

Many leaders and coaches struggle with this form of listening since they often want to provide potential solutions for the afflicted party. To do so in these circumstances would be a mistake!

Appreciative Listening: Whenever you find yourself listening to music or even the sounds of nature, you utilize an appreciative style of listening. This form of listening is pleasure-based as opposed to being focused on comprehension or higher level discernment. If relaxation or unwinding is the goal, you’re in this zone.


Strong listening skills are required if you want to be more effective at helping others, asserting yourself, and navigating challenging subject matter.

It’s a linchpin to the lost art of conversation, and it is about far more than retention; it’s about understanding the power of being present.

When you truly learn how to listen, you learn how to lead.

Bruneau, T. (1993). Empathy and Listening. In A. Wolvin & C. Coakley 

(Eds.), Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation.

Hargie, O. (2011). Skilled interpersonal interaction: Research, theory, and practice. London: Routledge.

Wolvin, A. D. & Coakley, C. (1993). A listening taxonomy. In A. Wolvin & C. Coakley (Eds.), Perspectives on listening. Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation.


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