When someone tells us (as I’m about to) that they’re going to teach us how to listen-we tune out. Isn’t listening something we learned as children? Isn’t it a given? It almost feels like an insult to learn about listening-as if it’s too elementary or basic.
The truth is, deep listening and learning how to really listen, is a transformative capacity that can be applied to all the different areas of our lives, both personal and professional. Listening is at the source of all great leadership and effective teams. Challenges often come from a lack of connecting to what’s really going on and making assumptions about another person’s perspective or what the situation calls for. Treating listening as an important capacity in our lives means we can open our minds and hearts to what’s really going on, include diverse perspectives, manage conflicts effectively, and open the space for new solutions to emerge.
The first domain is Downloading. This is sort of the default mode for how we have listened most of our lives. It means we are confirming what we already know. We may not even really hear what someone else is saying and instead be thinking about our lunch or something else we have to do. We’ve all had the experience where someone finishes talking and we blankly stare at them realizing we haven’t really heard a word they said. That’s listening as downloading and it’s what we’re trying to move away from.
The second domain is Factual Listening. This is when we are only listening for the facts, specifically what it is we don’t know. This type of listening is useful in emergency type situations when we only need to hear the most essential information. It’s as if we’ve opened the curtain of our minds and can now see outside. A good skill for this one is to ask questions to confirm/disconfirm what you’re hearing-”you said the meeting is at 2:00?”, that way our inquiry becomes part of our listening.
The third domain is Empathic Listening. This is when we drop from the head into the heart. We have to drop our assumptions and thinking brain to really tune in to what another is saying. This type of listening is very useful for understanding where another person is coming from, and it takes practice. We are not taught how to do this in society-normally we listen and think about how we will respond or what we think about what the other person is saying. It takes practice to listen from the heart and truly hear what another is saying. This type of listening is very helpful for resolving conflict and making sure others feel heard.
The fourth domain of listening is Generative Listening. This type of listening actually opens up space and allows new possibilities to emerge. No matter what the context or situation when we pause and allow space we can actually hear and attune to a deeper source of intelligence. This deeper source of intelligence can be found in the body and in the atmosphere, in fact, it’s the very fabric of life. It sounds esoteric but actually it’s very practical. What would it be like if we paused in our meetings more often to just listen into the silence? This type of listening is useful for solving complex problems and generating ideas.
These types of listening are nested within each other, for example when I’m listening from a Generative place I’m also practicing Factual and Empathic listening. They are also situational, it’s not always appropriate to listen from an Empathic place, sometimes we just need to know the facts. We want to move away from Downloading all together, as that is a habitual way of not actually listening. Like any skill, listening takes intentional practice and the more we do it the more it becomes second nature and integrates into how we operate both individually and collectively.
Here’s a practice for deepening your capacity to listen:
Sit across from a colleague or friend.
Take turns answering the question, “What is your most important challenge right now?” (a challenge is important when it puts you at your learning edge)
As the other person is speaking, try to listen from the heart (Empathic listening). Tune into the heart and when you notice yourself thinking about your response or something else, come back to the present and really try to listen deeply from the heart. When they’re done speaking ask any clarifying questions (Factual listening) and then pause and allow one minute of silence. Listen into the silence and notice any images or feelings that arise in your body (Generative listening). After the minute of silence, share with your partner what those images/feelings are. Steer away from “fixing” anything about the challenge. Just notice.
For more about how to use listening in your work and life, visit strongheartleadership.com