I’ve been thinking (yet again) about listening, catalysed by two experiences:
- resisting the four levels of listening of Otto Scharmer’s Theory U; and
- being drawn towards the premise of listening to connect, proposed in Judith Glaser’s Conversational Intelligence.
As I pondered the roots of my aversion to one idea, and my attraction to the other, I changed my mind about both. Acclimatising to Scharmer’s descriptors, I began to see them as aspects of four genres of listening:
- what we listen to;
- what we listen for;
- how we listen; and
- something I’m beginning to call ‘bare listening’ inspired by the mindfulness practice of ‘bare attention’.
I’m describing listening energies, rather than levels: each is appropriate in different contexts, and may happen with greater or lesser awareness and/or skilfulness. This frame helps me engage more openly with Scharmer’s model.
Examining my initial ‘yes!’ to Glaser’s ‘listening to connect’, I began to feel uneasy. Whether we listen to understand, to connect, or to…achieve any particular end, we listen with an agenda.
Purpose is directional, active energy, whereas unalloyed listening energy is open and receptive, without preference. This kind of listening is ‘bare’ in that it’s about receiving what’s being said (or not said) without interpretation or inference – witnessing another’s narrative without adding our own. Easy to say. Hard to do.
In describing receptive and active energies, I’m drawing on the Taoist concept of yin and yang. Constantly changing in relation to one another, and together constituting universal life force (ch’i or ki), yang and yin are often portrayed as starkly contrasting: light and dark, full and empty, hard and soft.
Such polarities mask a subtler appreciation: when any two entities are compared, one is yang in relation to the other. The circular t’ai chi symbol, where a white (yang) dot appears in a black (yin) segment and vice versa, shows visually another nuance: no ‘thing’ is entirely yin or yang.
Applying this tenet to receptive (yin) energy such as listening, we expect to find a seed of active (yang) energy, such as intent. We listen with an element of focus, paying more attention to some things than to others. We may listen to understand, to connect, to intervene. We may listen for facts or metaphor, for narrative or patterns, for the familiar or unfamiliar. Usually, purpose is present, whether acknowledged or not.
In contrast, bare listening might be an underlying ideal: warm, precise, accepting yet uninvolved. Paradoxically, if I aspire to it, I introduce an agenda. Yet, on occasion, it simply happens – a sense of profound attending to what is, beyond conscious effort.
Even as a coach, supposedly non-directive, I can’t be non-directional. Each choice I make – to attend to this and not that, to say something or nothing – introduces a frame that influences the coaching conversation. I can only bring awareness to these innately directional inner choices, and gauge the distance between my listening practice and bare listening. This reduces the risk of confusing my worldview and interests with those of my client.
Whether coach or not, paying attention to such matters is of value whenever we listen. Regardless of the words we use to describe listening energies, if we perceive our own filters, biases and motives more clearly, we’re less likely to misconstrue what other people say and do. We listen more cleanly, and with more presence.
As you listen today, ask yourself: what’s influencing what I hear?