Any time I lead an organizational or leadership storytelling workshop, I split folks into pairs and ask them to share a story with each other. Person ‘A’ goes first and Person ‘B’ is asked to simply listen without interjection. After the exercise, I ask everyone what they noticed about sharing and listening to the stories.
Based on what I’ve heard after facilitating this exercise hundreds of times, one of the most challenging parts is not telling the story, but listening without speaking. This makes a fair bit of sense: most of us have been culturally training to treat conversation like a tennis match. We listen primarily for an opening, a chance to return the volley, to share our own point of view.
What happens when we’re challenged to simply listen, to take in another person’s story without any agenda of our own other than being present?
Based on what I’ve heard and seen, what happens is empathy, compassion, and a bond that forms quickly and with unexpected depth.
According to Otto Scharmer, the author of Theory U, listening happens at four different levels:
Downloading: At this level, we listen from our habits and existing understanding in order to confirm what we already know or think we know. A social media echo chamber is a fantastic example of listening by downloading: we’re simply reinforcing an existing story or worldview. Nothing that contradicts that story finds its way into our brains. Many organizational meetings exist at this level as do many of the conversations we have with friends. For many of us, ‘downloading’ is our default setting.
Factual: At the factual level, there’s room for discordance. We start to notice things that don’t necessarily fit with our point of view or story about the world. A few weeks ago, I had a session with a new client. My guard was down and, given where I met this person and how they presented, I came into the meeting with a set of assumption about who they were and what they sought. Within 10 seconds, this person presented data about themselves that contradicted those assumptions; and suddenly I was listening at a factual level. A window had opened that allowed for the potential of change.
Good science can happen at the factual level, the collection and investigation of conflicting data. But complex change happens at deeper levels, starting with the next level of listening:
Empathic Listening: Empathy is one of the most powerful forces in human history and evolution. It’s responsible for bringing us together in tribes, for bringing an end to interpersonal (and even international) conflicts, and for the success of every Pixar movie made to date. At this level, we’re not just listening at the cognitive level, we’re listening with the heart as an organ of perception. As we open to the feelings, experiences, and perspectives of another human being, we are able to see the situation, and the world, through their eyes. This creates an immediate emotional connection.
Anyone who has ever been moved by a story or felt close to someone after they’ve shared a particularly vulnerable moment has experienced empathic listening. By their very nature, powerful stories invite empathy and, in fact, there’s fascinating research that shows that centuries of evolution have wired our brains to respond to stories by releasing hormones that promote empathy.
So empathy is powerful. But even it is not enough to move into a place of growth, change and development. Which brings us to the fourth level of listening.
Generative Listening: This is listening as a dynamic act of co-creation. When we open our will, letting go of thoughts, expectations, and urges as they come in, listening becomes about much more that what’s being said: it becomes about what’s not being said and about connection with future potential.
At this level, we’re fully present. It’s the type of listening practiced by great coaches, leaders, and friends. Those who listen to more than our words; they listen from a place of holding your highest, most fully realized possibility.
This type of listening is a bit tough to describe, so here are some signs that you’re listening generatively:
At the generative level, listening becomes much like a spiritual practice, connecting listener (or listeners) and speaker to something greater than themselves. When we listen generatively, change happens at deep levels. And it happens quickly.
Storytelling is much more than an artform or a communication tactic. It’s a way of being in the world, a way of inviting generative listening and encouraging ourselves and others to move beyond the status quo promoted by simply ‘downloading’ information and into a place of deep presence and co-creation.
As an exercise, take time over the next few days to notice how you’re listening in the world. Make some notes. When are you downloading? How can you move into places of deeper listening? Let me know how it goes!