Listen more – Listening as a leadership tool


Aug 9 2022


Listen more – Listening as a leadership tool

When you listen, do you hear what is actually being said? Or are you especially eager to have your own say? In the latter case, you are certainly not alone. But listening sincerely is a fantastic way to achieve more without working harder. Especially in rapidly changing situations, where innovation and learning are crucial.

Think back to a moment when someone really listened to you. What happened then? You probably showed more of yourself. Collaboration was easier. New opportunities and solutions emerged more quickly. This shows that listening is more than simply keeping quiet. It is hearing between the lines what else is going on. Building a relationship. And: helping the other person to formulate and organize their thoughts.

Otto Scharmer, who you may know from Theory U, distinguishes four levels of listening: downloading, factual listening, empathic listening and generative listening. Each has a different outcome.

Downloading, the name implies, is merely the re-activation of previous opinions or information. You don’t really hear what is being said. New facts don’t penetrate. Suppose you are busy. You’re trying to get a few things done quickly before a meeting. A colleague knocks on your door, let’s call him Jan. Jan always relies heavily on your guidance: too heavily, in fact, you think. Pfft… you think. After a minute or so you interrupt him: ‘Now is not a good time; tomorrow I’ll have time’. Jan leaves, but without you hearing the new information that you could have used so well in your meeting.

The second level is Factual listening: observe the message very precisely. You are open to new facts and solutions. Chances are that, in Jan’s example, you would have heard the useful contribution.

The third level is empathic listening. Listening with an open heart. In more complex situations it helps to listen from the perspective of the other. There you not only hear the literal words, but you also experience the meaning of his or her point of view. Suppose our Jan had not put his message into words properly because he was tense. By listening empathically, you could have heard that something was not right. You could have asked the right questions to help him manage his stress better.

Finally, generative listening goes even a step further. And that’s very usefull if you are moving in a rapidly changing context where learning is important. What generative listening does is listen so deeply that you pick up on where the situation is going. Think back to that one teacher or mentor who showed you that you were capable of much more than you thought. He or she noticed what your next step was. It turned out to be an invitation for a new version of yourself to emerge. This form of listening therefore helps an individual or group to grow. This makes it a crucial skill for teachers, leaders, coaches or parents. Jan might have found through your generative listening, that he didn’t actually need you as a support person anymore. Which would have made him more confident and independent. And that would have been good for both of you.

So the way you listen determines what you hear. And it is precisely in a complex VUCA environment that deep listening helps to quickly get to the heart of the matter and to learn. This also reminds us of a quote by scientist Max Planck: If you change the way you look at things, then the things you look at will change. And that realization is worth its weight in gold if you don’t want to be driven crazy in the turbulence of a complex work environment.

This was the last blog in the series navigating complexity in the workplace. Not saturated yet? Check out the Complexity Lab.

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