Did you know that you can change the world just by the way you listen?
I have been studying an approach to individual, group, and societal transformation called Theory U, spearheaded by Otto Scharmer and researchers at MIT for several years. Theory U reveals systemic forces impacting the way people work and live together. The point is to help people practice the art of leading from what’s possible as opposed to leading from what’s predictable.
Theory U isn’t all theory. It also focuses on concrete skills that cause transformation. One of those skills is for deep listening. Otto calls it The Four Levels of Listening. Here’s a closer look at each of them.
Level One Listening: Downloading
You’re not really present at Level One Listening. Your mind is elsewhere, and it shows. It’s what my then-10-year-old daughter would call “fake listening.” I would nod and say, “Uh-huh,” and “Okay,” but she knew I really wasn’t listening at all. I could not have repeated what she said. I was thinking about my to-do list and what I needed to make for dinner.
Level One Listening happens when you engage in a conversation where someone is talking but you already think you know what they’re going to say. You may even finish their sentence for them. You’re distracted and trying to shortcut things, and in the end? You leave the conversation with no new data points, nothing learned, nothing challenged.
Unfortunately, this is the way most of us listen most of the time. And here’s the thing: The people you are speaking to can tell when you’re not there. They may even feel slightly ignored or disrespected.
Level Two Listening: Factual Listening
At this stage, you’re no longer just listening for the things you already know. Instead, you’re focused on learning what you don’t know. You’re focused and paying attention. If someone were teaching you a new skill or operating procedure, you would listen through Level Two.
Level Two Listening may lead to a good debate, because it challenges what you already thought you knew. You come out of the conversation with new data points that challenge some of your old assumptions.
Level Two listening is definitely an upgrade from Level One, but it’s mostly intellectual. You separate the facts in the conversation from the person you are having the conversation with. You are not paying attention to their feelings or emotions, or any nuances in the conversation.
This happens when my husband starts drilling me for facts when I’m upset. He wants to understand exactly what happened without stopping to notice that I’m upset. It’s not a great conversation for the speaker. And you may miss important information that’s not embodied in facts.
Level Three Listening: Empathic Listening
In Level Three Listening, you start to connect with the person you are speaking to, not just the information they share verbally. You move beyond factual statements and start to explore nuance, feelings, and emotions related to them.
With Level Three Listening, you begin to connect with the speaker on a more emotional level and “read between the lines” to notice what is unspoken. You can put yourself in their shoes and see things from their perspective.
When you see the world through the eyes of another person, your heart is open. You are willing to be moved, opened, and present to what they are feeling. You understand the emotional content of what they are saying. This is why it’s called Empathic Listening.
If you practiced Level Three Listening more often, meetings would be more productive because you would hear the facts and the other person's perspectives. Your responses would be more appropriate because you would be in tune with what’s going on with the people around you.
When you listen empathically, you and the speaker both have a better experience.
Level Four Listening: Generative Listening
Generative Listening is about listening to what's possible — listening from the future that wants to emerge. In a comic strip, it might be illustrated by two people talking, followed by a lightbulb going off simultaneously for both people.
Level Four makes for an excellent conversation. You move beyond connecting with the person speaking to connecting with the core ideas of the conversation and their potential futures. You are fully focused on helping bring the best possible future into being, and your ego and other barriers are dropped.
When people align like this, in a safe, optimistic, future-oriented way, great things can be imagined. It’s possible to generate new ideas and find the energy and enthusiasm to bring them into reality.
The way you know you’ve listened from an emerging future is that you and the other person leave the conversation altered. A whole new world emerges for both of you.
I encourage you to begin paying attention to your listening. What level do you spend most of your time in? Can you move up a level? This is what’s needed to create workplaces where people experience belonging and connection. It’s a wonderful practice.
Previously published on Forbes