Skip to main content

Otto Scharmer's 4 Levels of Listening is a simple model for leadership development, and for gaining a greater understanding of interactions between individuals within an organisation.

Otto Scharmer and Theory U

Otto Scharmer and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed the 4 Levels of Listening model whilst observing interactions between individuals at the organisational level. It is a valuable model for developing effective leadership skills, self-awareness, and driving organisational change. He considers that many failures at work can be attributed to a lack of listening, and therefore a lack of understanding of the situation at hand. 

When the 4 Levels of Listening Model was developed, in the mid-2000s, Scharmer and his team had already developed Theory U, which focussed on the quality and volume of awareness and attention that individuals give certain situations. Whilst doing so, they identified four structures of attention and four different ways of operating, and explained how it is possible to learn from an emerging future. The 4 Levels of Listening is, therefore, an example of how to illustrate Theory U.


This is the most basic and habitual form of listening. It is very direct, and usually only occurs when the individual is familiar with what they are hearing/being told, and are therefore only listening to confirm what they already know, or their current opinion, which is likely not to change. Everything they are hearing is being projected onto preconceptions of the situation, and is reflecting the past rather than the present moment. 

Factual Listening

This is the next stage, which involves listening with an entirely open mind and without any presumptions or prior judgements. Individuals employing factual listening are attentive to new ideas and data, and are accepting of any differences from what they already know. The outcome is that their opinions or views on a situation may be altered by new information which is now available to them. This is good for scientists, or individuals in an analytics situation, but is still not suitable for those who need to be more visionary, such as leaders.

Empathic Listening

Empathic Listening requires a yet deeper level of listening, and needs the individual at hand to have a certain level of emotional intelligence. This is the ability to truly connect with the individual who is being listened and to see the world, situation, subject or opinion as they do, through their eyes, and provides them with an emotional connection to the speaker. This provides the listener with alternative perspectives which can help to sculpt and define their decision-making. 

Generative Listening

This is the highest, most informative level of listening, and is a very important skill for leaders to learn. It requires the individual to gain a connection with the best future that they can; an emerging and developing future, or possible futures. This subsequently results in a profound shift and a truly deep sense of knowing. This can be used to envisage individual development, and can also be used to design and plan organisational change. 

How to Apply Them

When one can operate at the highest level of listening - Generative Listening - they can gain a far broader strategic perspective on a matter, and gain fair greater awareness of individuals, situations, or specific points of view. This, in turn, can aid by improving leadership capacity, and the performance of teams, individuals and the organisation as a whole. 

It is a skill which is particularly valuable to leaders and coaches, who have to understand and envisage the highest future possibilities. Through Generative Listening, leaders are able to envisage and put into action, visions of the future for their team or organisation. They do not see individuals and situations by their past - instead, they will be able to understand theirs, the organisations, and the team's potential, and the process by which to go about driving real, comprehensive change.