This small tweak makes people feel amazing (and is more fun for you!)

“Even as you’re telling me that everybody does this, I’m thinking, ‘Not me, I’m different’ – and that’s an example of me doing the exact thing you’re talking about!” I wailed.

“I know,” he said. “We all do it. It’s really hard not to.
“But if you can move beyond it, to level two – that’s when you can make a difference. So many people spend their whole lives talking at or with people but without ever really just being heard, so to connect at level two is to give a gift and fill a fundamental craving we all have.”

My friend Aaron was teaching me something new, and I was flipping out.

One of my FAVOURITE experiences in life is learning about a novel way of looking at a thing I do all of the time. It’s like having the curtain of a tiny corner of the world pulled back for you to see. It feels magical.

Right now, Aaron was talking about listening – something I always assumed was pretty straightforward (one person talks… the other doesn’t…). It turns out, there are three different levels, and each has a different effect on both you and the speaker.

I’d been asking him about some work he’d done recently, around using storytelling to affect change in his native Detroit. As you may have worked out, I am somewhat obsessed by storytelling and the power it has to influence people.

In this case, Aaron had been coaching people on how best to tell personal stories about their experience of a lack of justice in housing, transit and criminal justice issues that have affected them, for a series of events that were part of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion’s Race2Equity Healing Stories Project.

Because, it’s one thing to read a bunch of statistics.

It’s another to hear, for example, the story of 56 year old James Robertson, who has to walk a 21-mile round trip to get to his factory job every day, because the buses are inadequate and he can’t afford a car.

The difference? Emotional impact.

Given that what we believe in is guided very much by our emotions, it’s important to affect the emotions – and the beliefs – of those who can bring about change to broken systems.

While coaching the storytellers on how to tell in the most compelling way was important – Aaron also needed to train people to listen effectively, so that their notes and impressions could be used as usefully as possible, to put together a report with policy recommendations for transit, housing and criminal justice.

And this is where the levels come in. Here’s what he showed me:

obama listening!

There are three levels of listening.


This is where, as you’re listening, you simultaneously relate what you’re hearing to yourself. Thoughts like:

“That’s an interesting point, and I have some thoughts that relate to this. Once this person’s finished making their point, I’m totally going to share mine with them


“That’s a great point they just made about the gentrification of the West End. It’s true that there are so many new fancy stores popping up. Like that gourmet sandwich place – OMG! That place is AMAZING! After I leave here, I should totally swing by and buy one of their falafel wraps! Oh, does wanting one make me a bad person?”

Or – as if often the case with me:

This is cool. What story do I have that relates to this, that I can tell once this person is finished theirs? Do I have a funny one? Or one that makes me look cool? I must do! Think, Marsha, THINK!!!”

In short: even when you’re listening, you’re not really listening.

I am excellent at level one listening.


(we’ll come back to two in a minute)

This is real big picture listening. The kind your intuitive friends use. This is where you zoom out and hear not just what’s being said, but what isn’t. What are this person’s body and voice doing while they talk? What might that mean? What’s the energy of the room – is it changing as they speak? Are they changing?

If you’ve ever had a conversation that you think is about one thing, and the friend you’re talking to asks you about something seemingly unrelated that totally hits home – that’s what’s going on here. Therapists and coaches are very good at doing this kind of listening. Aaron himself uses this in the one-on-one work he does dealing with conflict – preventing and resolving it – something he is BRILLIANT at.

He is a supremely skilled level three listener.
I am not.

But – it turns out, Level Two is a place i LOVE to hang out. Let me tell you what it is, then I’ll explain when I get to spend time there:



This is when you are LASER-FOCUSED on the person who’s talking. You’re completely absorbed by everything they are saying. You will have encountered this when you ask a question to a new sweetheart that you’re smitten with, or maybe to your business hero. Or even when you’re watching someone tell a story onstage that totally captivates you.

If you have any other thoughts, they’re about the speaker or what they are saying, and are driven by curiosity. What happened next? How did you feel?

Level Two is where I spend time when I’m coaching storytellers. And it’s a magical place to be. It’s pretty rare that you take part in a conversation that’s solely about one person. When you do, you get two huge rewards:

(1) You get to experience whatever they were experiencing – and this feels amazing for you, as the listener.
There’s actually science behind this: when we’re listening to a story and fully present, our brains light up in the same place as the storyteller, and they become IN SYNC.

(2) They feel truly heard – and this feels amazing for THEM.
As I’ve said before, I believe that all anybody wants in life is to feel (a) that they’ve been of service (and left the world better off than they found it), and (b) to feel truly heard and seen and understood (and that, this is what ‘to be loved’ means).

When you do level two listening, you’re really HEARING this person, and seeing and understanding them. It makes thetea 2m feel whole. It feels incredible.
(Want more proof? Just look here

And making someone else feel that good, makes you feel like a rockstar – and that you’ve been of service.

So it’s a win-win.

Your Turn

I want you to try out listening at level two this week.

A note: observing yourself will, inevitably, push you into level one (“I’m totally doing level two listening right now! This is great! Look how I am NAILING how focused I am on this person and not myself! Oh, hang on, wait…”). That’s ok. I’d like you just to try gently coming back to the level two or level three.

(If you need a little help on how to focus back on that person – there are three, quick and effective tips in THIS post, about how to deal with people you’re finding boring)


Over to you

Did you know about these different levels of listening? Is there one that you sit in more comfortable than the others? Or have you taken my suggestion and tested out trying different ones – and how did that go? I’d LOVE to know, in the comments below.

Thanks so much for reading! If you know someone that you think might be interested in these different listening levels – or who you think needs to spend a little less time in one or the other – you can share this with them using one of those round buttons below.


xx (Yes Yes) Marsha



PS want to know my best-ever client secret – and get even more advice, tips, plus stories that I won’t put on the internet? Come and join the Yes Yes Family – it’s free! Just pop your details in below:

Photo credits: Jordan Sanchez via; jurvetson and {studiobeerhorst}-bbmarie via Compfight cc; and me.


  • Eilidh

    Reply Reply October 1, 2015

    Yes, YES Marsha! Great post and a good timely reminder. When I worked in recruitment I was expert at Level 2 and sometimes hitting 3, but now I am mostly 1…maybe moving house and meeting new people you, getting a chance to show off with your best stories. This is a great reminder, thank you.
    P.S. I totally think the person on the right is wishing her to ‘just listen’ (this is the first time I’ve followed secret tip from end of mailer – totally worth it, v.entertaining as ever).

    • Marsha (Yes Yes Marsha)

      Marsha Shandur

      Reply Reply October 1, 2015

      I totally hear you on the meeting new people – though, I have found (after YEARS of focusing on level 1) that doing a good bout of level 2 does wonders for making closer new friendships.

      Hooray for you reading to the mailer’s end credits! And, yes, that does make sense on that person :)

      Stoked to have you in the Yes Yes Family, Eilidh!

  • Sam

    Reply Reply October 5, 2015

    I, too, am EXCELLENT at level 1 listening! haha hilarious.

    This is really interesting! I love getting laser-focused like that for level 2. Not so good at level three I don’t think…

  • Jennifer White

    Reply Reply October 14, 2015

    Hey Doll! Just really didn’t want to take the time to READ anything today. Just wanted to overload on your videos, but I’m glad I read this. I think I’m a pretty good level II listener (except with my kids, I realized. I DEFINITELY have to work on that) But I am super intrigued by this level III listening you speak of. One of my goals with my future work is to help people coming out of college or leaving a job to transition into what they love. But sometimes that is really hard for multiply talented people to figure out. How helpful it would be to be able to just look at posture or expression or tension to help them ferret out the thing that they truly want to do from under all the “should”s and “But I’m really good at”s and “that’s not realistic”s. !!! Thanks!!!

    • Marsha (Yes Yes Marsha)

      Marsha Shandur

      Reply Reply October 15, 2015

      Yes! It’s definitely not something I excel at, but I’m sure I could improve with some noticing and practise!

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