Four different levels of listening are identified by Otto Scharmer in Theory U. When I first saw them I was very much into the whole thing. I had participated in a 9-day intensive training in Non Violent Communication and was delighting in many conversations enacting some of the insights learned there. Listening was already shifting from a mere coordination activity to a deeply spiritual and loving practice.
While the key insights from Non Violent Communication (NVC) allowed me to connect with others in a much deeper way, the listening levels suggested by Scharmer allowed me to see a renewed model of listening. Together with the three main attitudes he identifies for Theory U to work (open mind, open heart, and open will), it was an invitation to experience listening in a new way.
I started to find myself wondering about these levels in my everyday life; recognizing when I was operating with a downloading logic (first level of listening), operating from my own perspective and sticking to my patterns and habits of thought. Sometimes, when I acknowledged that, I tried to connect with my curiosity, open my mind and realize that I could go into the second level, factual listening, looking for understanding, aware about new things.
From my own experience and from the tone of those conversations, it was clear that a change had happened, I was less in my mind and more in what I heard. I felt more interested in the conversations. Although subtle, this difference really made me ponder about the power of curiosity as a bypass for my prejudices.
Next level seemed familiar, from my experience in NVC and other personal development paths I had experienced the power of opening up the heart and allowing myself to feel with the other, through empathic listening. Still, re-discovering it curiously from this perspective made the experience fresh and new. I discovered that it was enticing to practice the level knowing that there was still another one to try. As Fred Laloux suggests in Reinventing Organizations the excess of energy of the green stage of development, makes us connect endlessly and may blind us from acting towards any other common future.
Then came the turn for connecting with courage, opening will and experiencing generative listening. Although I knew the meaning of all the words in that sentence and I realized I did not know how to put that sentence to action. I could imagine, or rather, sense that it required another attitude. So it didn’t only make sense, but it also felt great to discover the role presence had in this form of listening. Letting go for expectations and opening up to the realm of possibility with the conversation happening has unveiled a much deeper understanding of the way we communicate.
Presence & awareness.
U Theory invites us to discover the potential of presence in riding and facilitating waves of change or, as Scharmer calls it, “leading from the future as it emerges”. The very possibility of that happening lies beyond a set of distinctions and models. I have experienced it as a process of practices, attitudes, attention shifts, spirally woven into modifying the disposition, perception, response and overall configuration of our experience. That is how it opens an opportunity for leaders to be more tuned into the unfolding of life. Perhaps better still, it allows people surfing the crest of that very unfolding, to provide insights and hold collective leadership for communities to evolve and adapt more easily to our present day challenges.
As you may already know (if you have already read some U Theory stuff — if not, there is a great website www.presencing.org and the fabulous free online u.lab course at edx.org), the approach suggests that at the core of the process there is presencing, being fully present, open and thrown into the unfolding of life. This is not something very natural to us. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now goes into details of how little we live in the present moment, and how great it is to grow in it.
Presence is one great tool and state we humans can count on. We all have it available to enact it when needed. Meditation has been my key for tapering into presence (and thus into deep listening). Regular meditation has allowed to develop the awareness of my being and my being present. It is this awareness about the state in which I find myself that allows me to acknowledge the place from where I listen and that, with courage, I open up to possibilities.
This idea of opening up to possibilities was an instant link of U Theory with another great book that has been seasoning my walk: Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander’s The Art of Possibility. In that great piece the couple suggest 13 exercises for developing openness to possibilities. As it goes, possibility is not something out there different from me. Rather it is a pattern, a vibratory level of my relationship with reality; it is the operating condition of the place of happening: where experience happens.
Entering such a place of awareness requires tapering into the fabric of reality. I have found myself sharing the image of an harpist that, coming to the climax of the piece, strums the strings with both hands at the same time: left hand swiftly pushing upwards from the long, groovy bass strings, while the right hand excites first the crispy shiny high strings and head down. In that fashion the whole set of strings is creating a powerful sound and a space in between the individual strings; the whole set evokes a non-verbal yet powerful explanation of string theory.
Tapering into that space of happening has only happened to me after doing a 10-day training on Vipassana meditation. The technique is quite bold in stating that our attention is the main tool for out meditation. “Work diligently” we were reminded thoroughly, “you are bound to be successful”, Goenkaji adds lifting up our spirits after long meditation stretches. After having experienced and realized how my attention got more precise it made much more sense when I heard Scharmer saying: “Pay attention to your attention”. That was the key to start experiencing and realizing the different levels of listening he shared.
Feelings, needs and possibility.
Following our western logic, I often find myself tempted to believe that in these levels identified by Scharmer higher means better. Thus I tend to think I have to attain and maintain generative listening. Yet, very often something different shows up: a need to function on a more practical and faster way: simple commands, coordinating instructions, being at a seminar for one or two full days. With each of these experiences I become aware that in listening, the four levels are necessary and perhaps the art consists in learning when to switch to which level.
Yet, it can be a little trickier than just choosing. Listening from higher levels also requires tapping into some internal reservoirs for empathy, time, availability, openness, tolerance. And the more I practice enacting generative the more aware I become that I don’t always have available the internal conditions for it to happen. Sometimes it is about an idea that is very predominant in my head that might condition my capacity to listen openly and actively. The same happens with empathic listening; sometimes I am coming with a frustration or anger and, until I can recycle it, it might be difficult to offer empathy or an emotional container for somebody else. I find it hard to offer compassion and empathy when I am in need of that myself.
Remarkable it is: the very recycling that I need in those situations can be easily generated by a conversation -another one or perhaps that very same one with a shift. The conversational shift it needs is the acknowledging of each other needs and the inquiry into how they are present at any given time in the sharing. From the understanding that all humans share common needs (they just differ in prevalence, time, and strategies to meet them), Non Violent Communication has widely promoted sharing our needs and feelings about them, as well as listening to others from that perspective.
Meditation is another way of getting an internal condition that allows for generative listening. The very practice of awareness of the breath and the present moment increases internal coherence and prepares us to be more mind like water. It can help with tuning ourselves altogether and/or at least identifying our feelings and emotions.
Rooting into meditation offers a deeper perspective into this. Visualizing roots into the Earth from our buttocks, knees, feet or any other contact point, allows us to connect with the bigger loving matrix of creation: Gaia. After rooting, we may resume our conversation with somebody else with that deep connection. In doing so, we may offer a much wider channel for emotional recycling and fresher grounds for opening to the realm of possibility. Deep ecology might offer us a little explanation of this.
Together with meditation, this last year I have also received the gift of learning about deep-ecology through Joanna Macy’s The Work That Reconnects. This experience has invited me to think myself from a completely different perspective: instead of thinking our humanity (and me as part of it) as the central character of the story, it suggests we consider ourselves part of a much bigger living system. One individual, of one species, of the thousand species that make up the effervescent crust of Gaia. The more I meditate upon this awareness, not thinking about it, but meditating from that ‘starting point’, the more I resonate with us being Gaia’s children, “we are part of her dance”. This perspective is often called eco-psychology.
The great Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh was once asked: “if we could do only one thing to solve our challenges as humanity, what would be the wisest thing to do?”. I reckon he looked for the question in his heart, pondering inwards with a serene smile. He said “what we most need to do is to hear within us the sound of the earth crying”.
Every time I consider that answer I am taken to a very deep space within me. It is a swift yet powerful invitation to acknowledge the whole idea of thinking ourselves as part of something much bigger than me, than us humans. Within that space, I can understand my own emotions as reactions regarding the meeting or unmeeting of Gaia’s needs.
Reweaving our fabrics.
Paying attention to my attention while keeping this truthful invitation from Thich Nhat Hanh in mind, has made me understand another twist in our conversations: the possibility of regenerating, the possibility of healing and transforming ourselves through our conversation.
This is quite evident in the cases of psycotherapy, life coaching, professional coaching or even a good feedback session at work. Yet, perhaps less evident is that any conversation can be an instance to honor our eco-systemic identity and, while acknowledging the needs in the conversation, connect deeper and open to further possibilities about strategies for providing a new scenario where those needs be met, and thrive in the collaboration needed to get there.
Any conversation, with the right conditions: presence, awareness, detachment to ideas, care for connection, availability, and those three key attitudes suggested by Scharmer: curiosity (open mind), compassion (open hear), courage (open will).
Like that we may achieve regeneration listening: reweaving our ecological social and spiritual fabric.
· Otto Scharmer: Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges.
· Marshall Rosenberg: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.
· Eckhart Tolle: The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment.
· Eckhart Tolle: A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.
· Rosamund Stone Zander & Benjamin Zander: The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life.
· Joanna Macy & Molly Young Brown: Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to the Work that Reconnects.
· Thich Nhat Hanh: The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation.