How to Listen for Change

“The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves or have listened only to their neighbours to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave, and what the values are they should be living for” ~ Joseph Campbell

I don’t really trust people who haven’t been fired – at least once – from something where they thought they knew what they were doing.

Most of us – I think – need some kind of dramatic, kick in the pants life experience to move beyond ourselves and consider that there is more to success than learning the rules of the game and executing a winning strategy. There is more to a fulfilling life than good habits and clear structures; there is more to a meaningful life than a clearly stated purpose.

I’ve built a thriving career by developing my capacity for listening – mostly because of my failure to listen well. If there is one invitation I can make to you, it is to learn to listen well and to listen deeply. It is not the only thing – but it is one of the foundational pieces to a life well lived, meaning, fulfillment, purpose, character and also to leading real change in the world. If there is a practice you take

Full Volume

Our feeds are full of voices reflecting the incapacity of most of us to really listen deeply to what is happening in our world. We react, we preach, we argue, we stand up for – but we often don’t really listen. How could we – with the thousands of voices we allow into our lives at full volume every. single. day. We don’t stand a chance.

What makes for a great conversation? You might have great pride in your ability to connect with others by listening to them and hearing about their troubles and concerns. As a leader, you might feel your job is to listen to lots of different concerns and find a way forward or to listen to the different issues and find a unifying strategy.

Many of us think we are great listeners. When asked what we do well as leaders or as members of a team, we will often cite this as on of our great contributions to the organization….. I am a great listener. In countless interviews I have heard this put forward as a skill that people feel they possess and that sets them apart as a great leader or a great person or a great friend or colleague. What I always wonder – and often try and understand – is what is your great listening in service to? Do you listen to empathize? Do you listen to evaluate the choices or behaviours of others? Are you seeking to be corrective?  

For most of us, our ways of listening – habitually – often betrays both how we are asleep to ourselves, and often our inattentiveness to what is really possible in the moment.

Our inability to move beyond ourselves – and our habitual ways of listening to ourselves, our partners, and our world is often the root of our greatest failures – in life, and in leadership. To not move beyond our drive to confirm or disconfirm what we know can mean the most basic and the most devastating failure to organizations and teams alike.

“Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet.” Krista Tippett

A Change of Location

Leaders often are distracted by the noise in their environments and in their worlds in ways that take them off mission and vision or blind them to the subtle cues around them. This can play out in individual interactions, in team settings or even in broader contexts impacting the overall strategic direction and success of the entire organization.

The good news is we have the capacity to listen to ourselves and to others – in ways that are more disciplined and nuanced that you may consider on a day to day basis. There are several thinkers we can draw on to help hone those essential skills and improve our thinking in this area. To truly improve on our skills and elevate our listening to new heights.

“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time” – M. Scott Peck

Some Old Reminders

Erich Fromm’s classic rules of listening is a great place to start –

  • The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
  • Nothing of importance must be on his mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
  • He must possess a freely working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
  • He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
  • The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love (them).
  • Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.

This might seem cumbersome or overly prescriptive but it does have wisdom woven throughout.

More often than not, a deep level of listening evades us. We arrive at our conversations with others with the burden of agenda or the hurt from a long past conflict. We listen out of habit and not out of a sense of respect and presence.

When we listen out of habit we are only able to hear those things that we already know. If we have done some of our work, we can find our way to listen for facts – moving somewhat outside of ourself – this comes with some maturity but really only helps you listen for information that would disprove what you already know.

Your Listening Practice

To move beyond this level of listening you arrive at the capacity to listen with a sense of empathy. You need to have the capacity to be really outside of yourself and know that whatever the other person is saying it does not threaten you – suspending your judgement, cynicism and fear long enough to listen to another’s story and sustain an emotional connection to see the world through their eyes.

Otto Scharmer refers to four Types of Listening (Citation)

  1. Listening from what you know – The first type of listening is the downloading type of listening that is about listening from that place of habit. it is simply gathering factual information to reconfirm what we already know.
  2. Listening for what might surprise you – The second type of listening is the factual type of listening. This type of listening requires us to listen to the data and look for disconfirming information. While using this type of listening, we need to move out of our habits and suspend our judgement.
  3. Listening with empathy – The third type of listening is called empathic listening. In this type of listening we see the situation through the eyes of another person. We need to be able to step into the view point of another person and open our heart to see their perspective.
  4. Listening from the future – The fourth type of listening is the generative type of listening. In this type of listening we suspend judgement and are listening for the highest future possibility. This type of listening is holding space for something new to be created – the emerging self / identity / way of relating.

Each of these different forms of listening indicates a different position or stance you can take, a different depth you might engage with, and a different vulnerability as the listener.

When you think of these types of listening, it makes sense that one of the deepest forms of listening we can engage in is the generative form of listening.  This kind listening can make us both better. It can feel like something new and old emerge and our whole self is showing up in a powerful way. It requires the listener to truly let go of any agendas and be present to the moment and the future possibilities.

This all might sound simple but it really is quite difficult to put into practice.

There are several things that can get in the way of enacting these types of listening (Again from Scharmer,).

Blocking our path to a truly open mind  is the voice of judgment (critique / anger)

Blocking our path to an open heart  is the voice of cynicism (shame and disbelief)

Blocking our path to an open will is the voice of fear. (Anxiety / what if) 

All have in common a move away from presence and into the shadow – judgement, cynicism, and fear are not only reactions based on the past but they have a way of playing out in our life and in our communities in ways that cause the further construction of patterns of being and communicating that close us down to new possibilities.

So how can you as a leader free yourself from these blocks to bring yourself more fully forward to listen in your role?

Bring balance to your active life and leadership by learning to move beyond a stance of confirming or disconfirming your point of view. The way towards aligning your mind, heart and will  includes not only listening deeply to yourself but by expecting that others – even those most different from you – have ways of knowing that will light the way forward.

“When People talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway

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