By Tony V. Zampella, designer of learning programs

Listening is the most necessary capacity for developing leadership and the most significant commitment for being with other human beings. Indeed, close relationships are a function of listening.

And yet we often reduce listening to a skill that can be trained and transacted. Given its importance, I will devote a four-part series to the topic. Part one will introduce listening through four levels or mindsets. Part two will expand and distinguish Level 2 Listening, which is pervasive in organizational life. Part 3 will develop deep listening as cultivated from empathy. With Part 4, I will introduce deep listening as cultivated from being.

First, I offer this thought on listening by Abraham ZalesnikProfessor of Leadership, Emeritus at the Harvard Business School:

“Leadership cannot be taught. But would-be leaders can develop a state of mind that enhances leadership capacities. The particular state of mind that interests me … begins with the capacity to listen and deepen one’s understanding of another person’s point of view. The impulse to argue is contrary to the state of mind that encourages listening.”

What is Listening?

Let me begin with this: Speaking is insufficient to say what listening is. As soon as we breathe a word about listening, we’ve reduced the fullness of listening. We’ve limited a human phenomenon that is misunderstood, under-appreciated, and highly involved.

The fullest definition I can muster for listening will be inadequate, and … it involves all of the ways we become aware of, perceive, and observe the world and ourselves. At its fullest, listening consists of a radical openness of mind, heart, and will that expands awareness of self, focuses attention on others, and generates intention from deeper meaning.

Listening operates both as a skill for receiving and clarifying content and as a commitment that shapes the context for perceiving, understanding, and acting on that content. 

In sum, Listening is Decisive; it shapes how we perceive situations, what we say, and what we act on.

Levels of Listening

We begin this inquiry with Levels of Listening. These are based on the notion that each of us listens from a set of concerns given by our view of reality or the rung of the ladder we inhabit. From different mindsets, we are driven by an attention-focus dynamic. With this dynamic, we focus on concerns that drive our attention. Each mindset (level) pulls our attention to a focus that shapes our listening. 

1 – Listening to Protect: We React

In this mindset, we focus on whatever captures or hooks our attention as an ambition, threat, fix-it, or problem. We react to circumstances and threatening situations by downloading information, fixing problems, and reacting in ways that protect and preserve our current attention patterns.

phoenixThis mindset cares most about protecting and often focuses on pretending, controlling, and projecting. We are automatically hooked into a recurring pattern of talk, debate, and interaction. A growing listener at level one may see beyond their reflexive pattern but only later after the moment has passed.

Listeners here often begin formulating responses before the other person finishes speaking, even interrupting. They also disseminate preconceived thoughts or previous opinions to prevent any uncertainty.

These listeners embrace certainty through a general or binary, absolute, view of reality, lacking any nuance or subtleties, skating the surface of reality. Winning a position is most important, or at the very least protecting oneself from losing.

Listening to Protect is reflexive, and finds us unable to see what drives us or pulls us into conversations or reactions. Circumstances dictate patterns based on older mental maps, thoughts or opinions. Questions lead to greater certainty or control.

  • Focus of Attention: To control events.
  • Archetype: Litigator – To enforce my position, win my argument, protect my beliefs. 

2 – Listening to Facts: We Predict

In mindset two, we set aside our point of view to focus on events, patterns and conditions actually happening and place our attention on the matters before us. We distinguish facts from noise, and let data shape our listening and our actions.

At this level we most care about forecasting reality through verifiable knowledge, getting the facts and penetrating the noise or distractions, which finds us better at predicting, anticipating, and informing. A growing listener at this level can receive the content or data in messages regardless of how it’s delivered, or who delivers it. They reap the “what’s so” – just the facts ma’am — from any situation.

journalist-293x300These listeners embrace an empirical view of reality based on facts, evidence, patterns of data, and tested information. They test and shape opinions and beliefs from evidence, not in place of it. This Journalist’s ear listens for dates, numbers, facts and patterns, and seeks out details from the who, what, where, and when of any situation.

These listeners will often repeat what has been heard to ensure accuracy. They can be found explaining, and describing reality in more specific and concrete terms. This listening can seem transactional. Active listening is a good model, which can move beyond transactional with an open mind.

Listening to Facts comes from our mind center. We achieve this level of listening with a clear and open mind. Questions lead to greater knowledge.

  • Focus of Attention: To predict and respond to events
  • Archetype: Journalist/Investigator – to explain or describe events, and seek out solutions to problems. 
  • Practices: Distinguish meaning from facts; notice any triggers to bracket (suspend judgment); paraphrase speaking. 
  • Suggested ReadingsCommunicate or Die (Thomas Zweiler)

3 – Listening to Relate: We Connect

At this level, we observe others as legitimate beings; we focus on what they care about, their concerns and commitments. We experience different worldviews or frames of reference as legitimate perspectives, and add these perspectives to our listening. These worldviews and frames of reference, reveal biases, concerns, and deeper commitments that shape our listening and actions.

This mindset is the first that welcomes complexity and shades of gray. These listeners begin letting go of “either/or” thinking and invite a complex view of reality with a “both/and” approach to perceiving. They embrace data that reveals a concrete level of reality while realizing that the intangible gives rise to the tangible.

Increased empathy offers an opening for new perspectives beyond our own concerns (level 1) and what the data shows (level 2). We are now comfortable in revealing our experiences and interested in listening to others reveal their experiences — understanding their hopes, aspirations, fears, and concerns. We find ourselves respecting, appreciating, and empathizing.

Listening to Relate comes for our heart center. We achieve this level of listening with an open and vulnerable heart. Questions lead to greater appreciation of other points of view.

  • Focus of Attention: To achieve mutual understanding.
  • Archetype: Therapist/Teacher – to reveal self, receive other perspectives, and learn from others. 
  • Practices: Includes level 2, plus pausing between the many events in a day (meetings, conversations activities), which involves a mini-break to pause, breathe three times, and feel the ground beneath your feet. We also practice observing and bracketing any judgments, and dropping assumptions (agendas and expectations) when in conversations.
  • Suggested Readings: Difficult Conversations (Harvard Negotiation Project); Leading from the Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System (Otto Scharmer); Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Daniel Goleman).

4 – Listening for Being: We C0-create

At this level, often called “authentic or deep listening,” we shift to being. Beyond listening for information or feelings, we listen through a field or context. Through a clearing or openness, we can receive others fully as they are. We are a vessel through which the world emerges. We engage reality as contexts that we shape, and more importantly, observe contexts that use us. Our listening finds us leveraging the wisdom of others.

jazz-classicThis mindset suspends certainty (external data) and relies on clarity (internal compass) of being, embracing ambiguity for discovering new possibilities. Consider the jazz musicians in an ensemble, able to jump in and add value to any musical beat that comes their way. These listeners empower others to become whole in their presence. They create conditions to engage and explore the nuance of possibilities, which finds us generating, creating, empowering, and transforming.

Embracing discovery finds these listeners understanding that what is perceived is a part of a whole that is unseen. These listeners view reality as “icebergs,” realizing that what they see is the tip of much more they do not see. And so they lead with questions or observations, rather offering answers, pronouncements, or explanations.

Listening for Being comes from our will. We achieve this level of listening through a clearing that generates intention. Questions lead to discovering new contexts.

  • Focus of Attention: To create together in any situation.
  • Archetype: Composer/Improviser – to dance with situations through weaving new perceptions. 
  • Practices: Includes level 3,  plus regular breathing/sitting (begin at 20 minutes/day). With stillness, we witness our blind spots, and our own machinery, cultivating more openness.  Also, we reframe assumptions to transform perceptions.
  • Suggested Readings: Other Side of Language (Gemma Fiumara), On Dialogue (David Bohm); Presence (Peter Senge, et al); Tell Me More: The Fine Art of Listening (Brenda Ueland).

NOTE: We often view reality through one dominant mindset during stable times, and when we’re threatened we may revert to a previous listening mindset. This can find people operating between these levels above. As we practice we will find ourselves growing in our listening (the focus of our next blog).

This may be a new way of examining listening, but consider the limited exploration and language on this topic relative to our understanding of speaking or thinking. We have much to discover about listening considering how fundamental it is to leading and living, as expressed here by Brenda Ueland,

I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is. And how we forget it. And how we don’t listen to our children, or those we love.  And least of all — which is so important too — to those we do not love. But we should. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. 

In our next post (part 2) of this four-part series, I will expand on and distinguish Level 2 listening, which accounts for the pervasive amount of listening in organizational life.

Reading Time: 7.5 min. Digest Time: 10 min.

View, Deep Listening Mindsets, Part 2: Listening for Facts

View, Deep Listening Mindsets, Part 3: Cultivating Empathy

View, Deep Listening Mindsets, Part 4: Cultivating Being

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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.