I recently participated in an on-line course presented by MIT and Otto Scharmer about creating transformative change (amazingly, with about 40,000 other people around the world). The course explores frameworks for how we personally and collectively can address the challenges of our time and change systems that are “creating results nobody wants.” The heart of our leadership challenge is how to take existing situations where the dynamics are an ‘ego-system’ (e.g., each person or organization looks out for their interests) to a ‘eco-system’ where each participant focuses on the well-being of all.
His Theory U proposes that “the quality of results that we create in any kind of social system is a function of the quality of awareness, attention, or consciousness that people in the system operate from.” One of the core skills to practice to make this shift is in how we listen.
“Listening is at the source of all great leadership. A key source of leadership failure is lack of listening.” – Otto Scharmer
Often leadership training focuses on how we communicate our ideas and how we persuade others, essentially on talking as opposed to listening. In this season of Presidential primaries, I have been struck by how the formats of picking our country’s leader rarely emphasize how they listen. The candidates give speeches and run ads promoting themselves and their views and they participate in debates, competing to out-do each other. One thing I admired Hilary Clinton for when she decided to run for Senate in New York was she launched a listening tour and traveled across the state, listening to the stories of people.
The best leaders have an ability to listen and sense what is changing and adapt. They are also able to listen in ways that bring out the best thinking in the people around them. A related and powerful way of listening is to sense and listen for the emerging potential or possibilities that could emerge. Scharmer offers this framework as a way to think about different qualities of listening:
- Downloading – This is listening that goes through the lens of what you already know; you pay attention to that which confirms your current opinions and point of view. For example, when I listen to political news on the radio, it is often through a lens of left/right and agree/disagree. My filters and reactivity are engaged and I am not listening with an open mind.
- Factual listening – This is listening where we listen for what is different from what we already know or believe, like a scientist who aims to objectively study a situation. Scharmer uses the example of Charles Darwin kept a notebook where he wrote down observations that contradicted his theory. “Disconfirming data is the source of innovation.”
- Empathic listening – This is listening where see through another person’s eyes; feeling empathy, sensing what it is like to walk in another person’s shoes and see the world from their perspective. When I am listening like this, I try to put my opinions or point of view to the side and ask questions [and follow up questions] to learn more directly about the situation or person’s experience.
- Generative listening – This is listening for emerging future possibilities. It comes from being fully present without preconceptions or judging. It’s rooted in human capacities for intuition, sensing, knowing – think of the aha moment, the impulse or energy that moves us, the insight or new idea that “drops in.”
When I think of my personal experience, moments of transition and change were often spurred by the qualities of empathic and generative listening by a friend or partner, where they gave me the space to voice something I hadn’t articulated before; or they listened as if they could sense a bigger version of me or my path that I hadn’t seen yet. When I am with people who are skilled at these forms of listening, I feel more myself, I can see things more clearly, and I am more energized about the possibilities ahead.
Helping Groups Listen More Generatively
This quality can be generated in group settings as well. Meeting formats like World Café encourage empathic and generative listening, providing the space for many people to share their ideas and stories and encouraging participants to listen for patterns and new connections. In cross-pollinating small group conversations around an open question, new connections are generated and new ideas pop up more frequently.
How do we create spaces for groups that encourage these kinds of listening that can generate new ideas and motivation to act? What can emerge when a group works from the space of empathic and generative listening? Here are a few thoughts:
- Set the Tone in the Space. The way the facilitator invites people to show up at a meeting or retreat can encourage these more expansive ways of listening. In our work as facilitators, we set the tone early in a meeting by sharing this quote from the web site, Thinking Environments.
The quality of everything we do depends on the quality of the thinking we do first.
The quality of our thinking depends on the way we treat each other while we are thinking. – Thinking Environments
That web site has a list of ten components that help create this kind of space.
- Be Curious About Difference. We invite people to be curious about differences and the perspectives of others instead of competing to win with ideas. Instead of rebutting someone’s point of view, ask what has led them to see things that way…that becomes a different conversation.
- Listen with Our Full Attention. “Listen like there is a thief in the house” is the quality of listening that Fran Peavey, a social activist, encourages. This means that while we are listening, we are not scripting what we are going to say next, critiquing what we are hearing, or immediately relating it to our own opinion or experience to bring the conversation back to us.
- Learn to “Hold Space.” – Instead of viewing a meeting as a chance to promote our or ideas, we view it as a place to ask questions, listen, explore and exchange. Instead of taking space, we hold space for others and listen from that empathic or generative place. This blog by Heather Plett describes more fully what it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well.