Considering that it is so essential for leadership, listening deeply sure is hard. I catch my mind wandering during meetings—making a grocery list, thinking of errands. I hear my inner judge evaluating instead of listening to the person talking to me. Sound familiar?
Four Levels of Listening
Recent work by Otto Scharmer sheds light on why really listening is hard. Presenting at a recent Community of Practice meeting, my colleague Cathy Geib explained Scharmer’s idea that there are four levels of listening.
- At a superficial level, we hear through thick filters of assumptions, judgments, and confirmation bias. Instead of hearing the other person, we are locked inside the mind’s distorting echo chamber.
- To go to deeper levels of listening, we have to listen with curiosity, seeking information that disconfirms our biases about the other person or point of view.
- This curiosity, and the new perspectives it yields, prepare us for the fourth and deepest listening level, where we bring an open mind and can co-create real dialogue.
I’ve been using these levels of listening to heighten self-awareness and, using the practices I am learning, to help my clients. Heightening self-awareness begins with watching how we listen to our own thoughts and feelings.
To speak of my own journey of learning: I’ve lately been paying attention to my grief-transition process since losing my husband to cancer. One inner conversation goes like this. One voice says, “All the changes, all this newness, together with grief, tire me out. My old, striving life just doesn’t fit any more.” “Yes, but,” a second voice responds. “I’m a goal setter and achiever; I plow through to-do lists no matter what.”
The second voice often prevails because I’m very attached to achieving, having learned this “should do” script from my dear parents. I quickly label and then dismiss new needs for rest, a pause, and re-inventing my life. I am only listening to these emerging needs at level one, in other words, not listening at all.
A Way to Listen More Deeply
How can you and I dive below the surface to deeper listening? A practice of loving kindness helps re-pattern the mind. It works like this. Bring loving kindness to each thought—in my case, to both voices in my head.
Whatever is “loving kindness?” First, I acknowledge that both voices are real and true. Secondly, I gently accept both. Both voices are part of me; what if I were to accept and even welcome them? Embracing both voices frees me to accept my new needs for rest, for pause, and for re-creation. Acknowledging my goal-setting voice releases its defensive stance, and thereby loosens my white-knuckle grip on achievement as the one right way to live.
As a coach, going to and staying in a generative, deep-listening place is a core competency called “coaching presence.” To earn and maintain an International Coaching Foundation professional certification, coaches have to demonstrate skill in this and all thirteen other competencies. Check out the fourteen competencies. They are useful reminders for all supervisors and leaders.