Changing how you listen you change EVERYTHING

Listening probably the most underrated leadership skill. The least taught but most used skill.

The biggest leadership failures come from leaders unable to connect with and make sense of the VUCA world around them.

“I hear what you say. I see what you say. I feel what you say. I value who you are and what you say.” John C. Maxwell

Four levels of listening:

  1. Downloading or Selective Listening: Listening is limited to reconfirming what we already know. Nothing new penetrates our ‘bubble’. It is about us. Paying more attention to our own judgements, opinions, interpretation and driving our own agenda. It is about listening to respond.
  2. Factual listening: We let the data talk to us and notice disconfirming information. Doing this requires opening the mind—that is, the capacity to suspend our habits of judgment. It is pretty much listing to the words and facts of what being said by the other person.
  3. Empathic listening: We see the situation through the eyes of another. Doing this requires opening the heart: using our feelings and our heart as an organ of tuning in to another person’s view. You listen for the other person’s expression, emotions everything they bring. You notice not only what they say but how they say it. You notice what they don’t say and what are between the lines. “Switching on” your heart in this way helps you activate your source of empathic listening.
  4. Generative or global listening: We listen for the highest future possibility to show up while holding a space for something new to be born. It is the deepest and highest of listening involving all your senses, your intuition, your gut-feeling and all the meta-views. It is the most challenging. It is something that you cannot force. You can create conditions for generative listening. The most important intervention at this level is this: Do nothing. Do not intervene. Do not disengage. Just stay with and hold the space for what wants to emerge.

When you listen on level 1, “downloading,” your attention is not focused on what the other person says but on your own inner dialogue, commentary. For example, you may be planning what you will say next. As you cross the threshold from downloading to factual listening (level 1 to 2), your attention moves from listening to your inner voice to actually listening to the person in front of you. You open up to what is being said. When you start to cross the threshold from factual to empathic listening (level 2 to 3), your place of listening shifts from you to the other person—that is, from your small vehicle (the intelligence of your head) to your larger vehicle (the intelligence of your heart). You step into the other person’s perspective. For example, you might think, “Oh, I may not agree, but I can see how she sees this situation.” Finally, when you cross the threshold from empathic to global listening (level 3 to 4), your listening becomes a holding space for bringing something new into reality that wants to be born. You listen with openness to what is unknown and emerging.

We do and should use all levels of listening even within a conversation. All of them appropriate in one situation or in another. The success of leadership and change depends on the ability of the leader to observe his or her quality of listening and to adjust the quality of listening to what is needed in each situation.

Barriers to active listening:

  • Voice of judgement
  • Voice of cynicism
  • Voice of fear

Shifting how you listen, the way you pay attention, sounds like a really small change. But here is the thing: Changing how you listen means that you change how you experience relationships and the world.  And if you change that, you change, well, EVERYTHING.

Exercise #1:

At the end of each day, spend 5 minutes in the evening reviewing how you engaged in empathic listening (open mind and heart) and global/generative listening (open mind, heart, and will). If you cannot identify a single instance of deep listening, take note of that, too. If you do this exercise for a month, your effectiveness as a listener will rise dramatically. All it takes is the discipline to conduct that four-minute review process every day. And if possible, try to find two or three colleagues who will do the same thing and share your experiences with each other.

Exercise #2:

What is the voice in your head (the little man) saying? If it is a judgement you have a closed mind. If it is a cynicism you have a closed heart. If it is a fear you have a closed will.


Source: The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications by C. Otto Scharmer; Co-Active Coaching, New skills for coaching people towards success in work and life by L.Whitworth, K. & H. Kimsey-House, P. Sandahl; The 5 Levels of Leadership by John C. Maxwell

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