When my son was young, and not responding to my inquiry, I asked if something was wrong with his hearing and he responded: “No mother, my hearing is just fine, it’s my listening that is the problem.”
We all know the importance of soft skills—one of the most important being that of listening. You probably even know about “active listening”. Two of my current favorite researchers/authors/teachers take listening to the next level with critical skills necessary for leading in these complex emergent times. Let’s hear what Jennifer Garvey Berger and Otto Scharmer have to say in their latest books: “Simple Habits for Complex Times” (1) and “Leading from the Emerging Future” (2).
Listening well requires our brains to work harder.
With active listening we learned to make eye contact, nod, observe body language and repeat back what we heard. According to Garvey Berger, in Chapter 3 “Say What You Think, Listening to the Ways You Might be Wrong,” they emphasize how listening is “powerfully connected to leadership” . . . as it is the most important compensating factor in many key competency measures. Specifically, listening builds trust and relationships, it is contagious (I think that is great), and it makes you better able to actually learn by knocking you out of your own perspective and opening you to new data and the awareness of new patterns.
They go on to point out that this last point is also the reason that most of us do not actually truly listen. Listening well is unsettling and possibly causes confusion, not to mention risking the loss of one’s opinion or agenda. As stated on page 75 (after citing Daniel Kahneman on how human brains work to save us effort and protect us from difficult questions):
“Our brains will be working as hard as possible to save us the energy of listening carefully and of potentially being unsettled. Listening doesn’t happen by mistake; it is hard to do well, and it costs us energy. Unless you purposefully invest the energy, you’re unlikely to listen well enough to learn something unexpected.”
So, there is the invitation; listening to learn, listening to learn something new. How Agile is your listening? Garvey Berger includes the recommendation to ask the following key questions as part of increasing your listening skills:
“What is this person’s purpose, intent, or hope in what she is saying to me? What does this message mean to her?”
With this, your active listening skills might be expanded to include awareness of self (what are my biases and assumptions?) and awareness of others (who is this person and what is important to him?). Let’s now look at this topic from the framework of the Presencing Institute (as an awareness-based action-research community that grew out of the MIT Center for Organizational Learning) started by Otto Scharmer.
Four levels of listening
Otto Scharmer’s latest book (one of my most favorite and important books) covers the application of Theory U over the past 10+ years. In this work, Scharmer elaborates on the use of his four levels of listening. Let’s take a quick peek and see how we can relate to them.
- DOWNLOADING = listening from habits (Habits of Judgement) ⇒ Reconfirming old opinions and judgements
- FACTUAL = listening from outside (Noticing Differences) ⇒ Disconfirming (new) data
- EMPATHIC = listening from within (Emotional Connection) ⇒ Seeing through another person’s eyes
- GENERATIVE = listening from source (from the Future Wanting to Emerge) ⇒ Connecting to an emerging future of whole: Shift in Identity & Self
Do you find these intriguing and provocative? I do. Let’s explore them a bit with a little self-reflection. The underlying assumption is that typically most of us habitually practice Level 1 ‘downloading’ listening where we basically listen to confirm our thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. Looking at your last 24 to 48 hours, do you practice 100% level 1 or do you typically listen from a deeper level?
Two things of note: 1) there is a bias that the levels beyond level 1 are “better” and that is based on us living in an increasingly complex world that requires a deeper level of listening, and 2) there is an awareness shift that occurs as you go deeper, instead of unquestioningly looking out from your eyes, you now look at yourself (say in the mirror) and then expand that self-awareness to awareness of possibly being another, to possibly looking in the mirror and seeing yourself as part of all of it. This more complex self-awareness and contextual awareness will increase your ability to truly be in relationship and enhance your trustability.
So in the spirit of opening our minds (and ears), let’s dive in deeper to understand these four levels…
Level 2 is ‘factual’ listening. Have you ever tried listening to prove yourself wrong? Scharmer refers to this level as “Suspending” and having “ego-system awareness”. This requires that you “observe, observe, observe” with an “Open Mind” and that you are willing to suspend judgment and simply take in information. This is where you listen with everything you have from your wide-angle panoramic lens to your microscopic zoom lens, collecting as much information as possible. Your objective is to gather as much new information as possible, including seeing your own assumptions, biases, and motivations. Try it out.
How about level 3, ‘empathic’ listening? This is where the Garvey Berger questions come in very handy and their reminder that this is truly hard work (see Daniel Kahneman’s work on “Thinking, Fast and Slow”). Scharmer refers to this level as “Redirecting” and having “stakeholder awareness”. This requires that you use your empathic skills with an “Open Heart” and that you are willing to suspend cynicism and willing to ‘walk in another’s moccasins for 100 miles’ or ‘see through another person’s eyes’ to really hear and try to understand the perspectives of others. This includes knowing that there are most definitely errors in your empathy, AND it is better to do this poorly than to not have empathy at all. How about doing an experiment with this type of listening? You could use the questions and put in some focused effort to see what percentage of your listening can be from this level.
As you experiment with these first three levels, maybe challenge yourself to experiment with level 4 ‘generative’ listening. Scharmer refers to this level as “Letting Go” and having “eco-system awareness.” This is a very interesting process and, at least from my experience, it does not come easily. He uses the label “generative” to help us remember that this is where we let go of our individual agendas and are actually functioning beyond our personal beliefs and expectations and listening for something new. Can you see the whole world (or your immediate circumstance) in a mirror that includes you? What is it that the team is trying to communicate that is not being voiced by an individual? Are you willing to let go of your identity and self-interest and hear what is trying to emerge? This requires that you overcome fear and connect to what is trying to emerge with an “Open Will.” This level points out our personal and organizational blind spots as well as our cultures and their capabilities. This is where we learn what supports the overall system and what inhibits it.
This level of listening is difficult territory and might be supported with the use of assessments, such as a Bridge-the-Gap Project and/or Agile Profile or any instrument that increases your overall systems perspective and awareness. These experiences help you to facilitate the asking of questions in the context of expecting to respond and to change. Consider trying some of your own experiments in level 4 listening to learn what might want to emerge in your team or organizational settings.
I invite you to “Listen for Gold”.
In summary, you are invited to run some personal experiments and see what you learn about yourself, others, and listening in general. Try out these four steps as you keep the four levels of listening present in your mind:
- Notice how you listen. ⇒ How often do I listen at which level?
- Notice what you believe and listen to prove yourself wrong. ⇒ What disconfirming evidence can I find?
- Notice what is trying to be communicated that does not include you at all. ⇒ What are all the other perspectives in the room?
- Notice what is trying to be heard that is coming from the group and not a particular person’s voice. ⇒ What is possible for us in this eco-system?
Going beyond active listening and improving our ability and quality of listening will make us much better team members, leaders, and human beings. Remember to use Garvey Berger’s listening questions in your experiments: “What is this person’s purpose, intent, or hope in what he is saying to me? What does this message mean to him?”
Inspired Agility is a new Pyxis Partner company starting up in Portland, Oregon (USA) and offers training and consulting services in the US Pacific Northwest. We along with Pyxis companies worldwide are available to be your partner in achieving organizational and leadership effectiveness by supporting you to see what you do not see, hear what you might be missing, and go beyond active listening.
You can learn more about Otto Scharmer’s work, based out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), at the Presencing Institute and ottoscharmer.com. You can learn more about Jennifer Garvey Berger’s and Keith Johnston’s work at Cultivating Leadership. You can learn more about me and the birth of this new company at Inspired Agility as well as follow the evolution of the Pyxis Network at Pyxis Technologies.
(1) “Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders” by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston (herein referred to as ‘Garvey Berger’)
(2) “Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economics, Applying Theory U to Transforming Business, Society, and Self” by C. Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer, 2013 (herein referred to as ‘Scharmer’)