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Erin Eatough PhD


Manager. Behavioural Science

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Seven types of listening essentials for your HR skillset

You may think you’re a good listener, but is that really the case?

It may seem obvious that human resource professionals need to have great human skills (or soft skills) to be effective in their role. But in an ongoing period of uncertainty and crisis, these skills have never been more critical for HR to support and nurture the workforce.

The importance of listening, in particular, can’t be overstated. And while you may think you are a good listener, there are many types you might not be familiar with.

Here we outline seven important types of listening, to help ensure you and your team are using the right type in the right situation.

1. Informational listening

When you want to learn something, you’ll use informational listening to understand and retain information. 

It usually takes a high level of concentration to perform this type of listening. That’s because you need to be highly engaged to understand a new concept.

You also need to apply critical thinking to what you are learning. This is so you can understand what you’re learning within the context of relevant information.

Some examples of informational listening include:

  • Work training
  • Self-paced learning at home or at work
  • Listening to an educational ebook
  • Coaching

When you know how to use informational listening, you empower yourself to become a better learner. By actively learning and improving yourself, you can become a more valuable asset in your place of work.

You can also feel more fulfilled when you pursue your passions and learn something new at home.

2. Discriminative listening

Discriminative listening is the first listening type that you’re born with.

Everyone innately has discriminative listening skills.

You use this type of listening before you even know how to understand words. Instead of relying on words, discriminative listening uses tone of voice, verbal cues, and other changes in sound.

Discriminative listening is how babies understand the intention of a phrase before they can understand words. If someone speaks to them in a happy and amused tone of voice, they’ll smile and laugh back.

They can also tell who is talking because they recognise different voices.

But discriminative listening isn’t just for babies.

If you’re listening to a conversation happening in a foreign language, you’ll likely automatically use your discriminative listening skills.

These will allow you to analyse tone and inflection to get an idea of what is going on.

You can also use nonverbal cues to listen and analyse. For instance, someone’s facial expressions, body language and other mannerisms can tell you a lot about the meaning of someone’s message.

You shouldn’t discount discriminative listening, even if you understand someone’s language.

This listening style is key to understanding the subtle cues in a conversation. Using this listening skill can help you read between the lines and hear what remains unspoken.

Here’s an example: 

Let’s say you are meeting with an employee who is feeling upset about a disagreement among their team. You suggest a course of action and ask if they agree with this approach.

They say yes, but you can tell from their body language, such as shifting uncomfortably, that something is wrong. 

Using your discriminative listening skills, you can pick up on this and ask them if they’re certain. You can also ask if something is going on that they’d like to discuss. Perhaps they are feeling bullied, harassed or excluded, but in the first instance did not feel comfortable voicing what the deeper issue was.

At work and in your life, you’ll likely use a combination of comprehensive and discriminative listening to understand the messages people are giving you.

3. Biased listening

Biased listening is also known as selective listening.

Someone who uses biased listening will only listen for information that they specifically want to hear.

This listening process can lead to a distortion of facts. That’s because the person listening isn’t fully in tune with what the speaker wishes to communicate.

Here’s an example: 

Let’s say your superior has given you sign off for extra budget to support your employee retention strategy. You’re waiting to hear the details of what is expected from you for implementing your retention plans as you’ve been excited for a long time about it.

Because you’re so focused on this element of the conversation, you don’t fully hear everything your superior says. As a result, you hear your superior explain how they would like the timeline for the project roll out to be far more condensed than what you had originally proposed, but you don’t fully process it.

Because you did not fully absorb this information, you did not seize the opportunity to push back on this request and you now may miss the timelines they expect you to meet.

If you want employees to feel like they can open up to you and share their frustrations or pain points, adopting a sympathetic listening approach is crucial.

4. Sympathetic listening

Sympathetic listening is driven by emotion.

Instead of focusing on the message spoken through words, the listener focuses on the feelings and emotions of the speaker.

This is done to process these feelings and emotions.

By using sympathetic listening, you can provide the support that the speaker needs. You can understand how they’re really feeling, not what they say they are feeling.

The speaker will feel heard and validated when you take the time to pay attention in this way.

Sympathetic listening is crucial if you want to build deeper relationships with people, which is so important for HR professionals.

If you want employees to feel like they can open up to you and share their frustrations or pain points, adopting a sympathetic listening approach is crucial. 

You’ll use comprehensive listening when you receive feedback.

5. Comprehensive listening

Unlike discriminative listening, comprehensive listening requires language skills.

This type of listening is usually developed in early childhood.

People use comprehensive listening to understand what someone is saying using words.

Several other types of listening build on comprehensive listening. For example, you need to use comprehensive listening to use informational listening and learn something new.

At work and in your life, you’ll likely use a combination of comprehensive and discriminative listening to understand the messages people are giving you.

You’ll also use comprehensive listening when you receive feedback.

6. Empathetic or therapeutic listening

Empathetic listening is useful to help you see from other people’s perspectives.

Using this type of listening, you can try to understand someone else’s point of view as they’re speaking. You can also try to imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Instead of just focusing on their message, you can use empathetic listening to relate to someone else’s experiences as if they were your own.

This is different from sympathetic listening.

With sympathetic listening, you try to understand someone’s feelings to provide support. But you don’t necessarily try to imagine what it’d feel like to be in their position.

Here’s an example: 

Let’s say an employee is going through a painful divorce and is struggling with managing their workload.

By using empathetic listening, you can tell how distressed your colleague is about their personal situation and the mounting pressure they are feeling at work. You can imagine being in their shoes, and the difficulties they are facing having to go through a relationship break up alongside a busy work schedule.

7. Critical listening 

To analyse complex information, you’ll need to use critical listening.

Critical thinking while listening goes deeper than comprehensive listening. Instead of taking the information at face value, you can use this type of listening to evaluate what’s being said.

Critical listening is crucial when problem-solving at work. 

For example, you’d use this type of listening when trying to choose how to handle an unusual and complex request from your leadership team.

You need to use this skill to analyse solutions offered by other people and decide if you agree or not. 

To do this, you don’t just need to hear their words. You also need to look at the bigger picture and compare everything you know.

Learn all types of listening to improve your HR work

One type of listening isn’t better than the other. Instead, these seven types of listening work together to help you better understand the messages you receive.

By being a good listener, you can become a better communicator, avoid misunderstandings and learn new information more easily.

If you’re struggling to become an active listener, you’re not alone. You can make it easier to work on those skills through coaching from experts at BetterUp.

Schedule a coaching demo today to see how it can help you become a better listener.

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Erin Eatough PhD

Manager. Behavioural Science

Read more from Erin Eatough PhD

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