Four different ways of listening

Featured In: The Brightside Blog

When was the last time you felt somebody listened to you? Really listened? With an appreciative eye and an enquiring mind? In a way that made you feel valued and that you had something important, lively or interesting to say?

Sometimes we meet people who seem to have a natural flair for being able to draw out the story we want to tell – or even the story we didn’t know we had to tell, until we told it.

I am always curious to observe what goes on in a group dynamic – when you can normally see three different ways of listening going on, each one needing the other in its own way. And then, if you are fortunate and all the ingredients of a conversation come together like a well baked cake, you can observe, as my colleague Dena Michelli says, a fourth way – which takes the dialogue into a completely different space and direction.

These ideas are based on the work of Otto Scharmer in his door stopper of a book called Theory U. The fact that it took fourteen years of his life to write may give you a hint, for those of you who don’t know of it, that this is a book of significant size. But within its pages lay some simple and profound ideas about listening and how it can generate change.

Scharmer talks about how conversation can be like going on a field walk, a ‘Feldang’, redolent of those his father and mother would take their family on every Sunday at the farm near Hamburg, where he and his siblings grew up. They learned what was going on, and changing, at the farm each week as well as about nature, ecology and its place in shaping human thought and activity in the world.

In order to deal with the challenges of our time, Scharmer says, we need to learn to ‘shift the way we attend the field structure of our attention’. Because, ‘The way we pay attention – the place from which we operate – is the blind spot on all levels of [the] society.’i

So what are these four ways of listening to which we can pay attention and step into?

The first is what Scharmer calls, ‘down-loading’. Or what we might call ‘broadcasting’. You know this kind of conversation well. It’s a conversation in which no one is curious because everyone is so busy positioning and proving themselves in the space. What’s going on here is people are listening, but only with a view to confirming what they already know – and letting you know they know it. To move on from this kind of conversational space requires us to let go of our ‘voice of judgement’.

Which means we can take a step towards the second way of conversation. This is when I open my mind and become a little bit curious about what I don’t know. Then I can be what Scharmer names as ‘object-focused’.

Here I am listening by paying attention to the facts. I am disconfirming or confirming information as I hear it. I begin to shift from placing myself at the centre of the conversation to paying attention to someone, or something, other than myself. To do this, Scharmer argues, I need to start getting alert to being surprised by something new in the conversation and then observe it with fresh eyes. But for this to happen, I need to let go of not just my ‘voice of judgement’ but also my ‘voice of cynicism’.

At this point in the conversational journey, Scharmer says, a third way of listening begins to emerge. It requires an open heart. I am then able to put myself in the shoes of another and take what he calls ‘a deep dive’. Or what you and I might call walking a mile in the moccasins of another person. This leads to a deeper level of listening and engagement. And this is the point in the conversation where the other person starts to think they are valued and feel that their contribution is of the utmost importance.

This leads to mutual understanding and gives space for shared meaning. It’s here in the conversation, if you are lucky; we begin to sense a profound shift in the place from which our listening originates. And this is where we should all be headed in a team at work or around the kitchen table with family and friends.

So, we could stop here because this is a happy place to be.

However, there is, Scharmer says, and you will intuit it on a good day, another way of listening on this conversational journey. But this way is the most difficult to achieve because it requires me, along with my ‘voice of judgement’ and my ‘voice of cynicism’ to then let go of my ‘voice of fear’. And, yes, there is also an ‘and’ here because I have to do something which can be even harder than opening my heart to something, or someone, new. And that is, to ‘open my will’ and turn my ear to listen differently. That is, to listen with extreme attention and awareness.

If so, we are able to hear the soft murmurings in a conversation which are longing to surface but for fear of looking or sounding stupid we rarely name them. They are of course related to our fears and if we open them up to the light of day then we will have to do something about them.

When we learn to recognise this level of conversation emerging, we catch a glimmer, like the flash of a kingfisher across a lake in the late afternoon sun. And this is what I have learned to call giving way to a conversation that is waiting, yearning even, to emerge. And then we know there is something else coming, like a promise, a pledge. And then, thankful heart and willing mind, we listen, alert to the soft murmur of a whisper. The echo from a conversation giving way to something new.

This is what Scharmer describes as ‘presencing’ or intuiting the future. It is a generative conversation because we have let go of what we already know and are open to what might be. We are sensing and listening to what thoughts or ideas might be emerging outside of the current conversation. It can be a place of silence. And of creativity. What follows can be an unleashing of ideas that ignite the imagination and take shape into something new that none of us could have thought of individually, but collectively we can.

Thoughts begin to crystallise with clarity in the conversation like those blue crystals we used to create in chemistry lessons as children. Practising this way of ‘presencing’, of being present and alert in this generative way with others, can lead to a new paradigm, or a new way of seeing things.

And isn’t that, dear reader, something worth thinking about?

i Scharmer, C.O.  (2009).  Theory U.  Leading from the Future as It Emerges.