How To Become a Master in the Noble Art of Listening

My journey becoming a better person and professional

Marty de Jonge
May 7 · 4 min read

If there is something I do almost all day, I guess it is listening.

When I get up in the morning, it already starts with my youngest daughter. “Daddy, that shirt that you are wearing really can’t go together with those pants. You have to change it!” Then my wife, “Honey, don’t you forget to pick up the groceries when you come home tonight?” In the car, the newsreader tells me what is going on in the world right now, and ultimately at work, most of my day consists of consulting and communicating with people.

My personal listening journey

Listening, real listening is not that simple; it’s an art. But an art you can learn to master. Recently I started my first steps on this long journey towards “Mastery” by doing a deep dive in Theory U.

In his book, Theory U, Otto Scharmer describes four different levels of listening that are essential for conscious and personal leadership. In this article, I want to explain further these 4 levels of listening and what they brought me.

Theory U is a model that touches various layers of people: mentally, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. Going through the U touches people deeply in their desire to have meaning, and at the same time, help them to make a real relationship with everything around them: themselves, others, and the world.

Theory U is valuable for professionals like me who are involved in the daily management of change processes and are looking for practical tools to achieve sustainable change. Besides valuable during working hours, I have found it to be even more valuable during my daily communication in real life.

Otto Scharmer distinguishes four different levels of listening:

  • 1. Downloading (where you are mainly looking for confirmation),
  • 2. Factual listening (where you supplement on existing ideas),
  • 2. Empathic listening(where you are open to others) and
  • 4. Generative listening (where you listen from your intuition).

Scharmer taught me that exceptional coaches and leaders mainly listen in the fourth way. They listen with empathy to your experiences and difficulties and add something extra: they also see who you can be in the future and connect you to this by paying attention to it.

Image by the author

I’ve been working on it for about 3 months now, and I have to admit, it’s not easy. To be more honest, it is even very difficult. Postpone my judgment, suppress my opinions and beliefs. Stop my natural tendency to make ‘my contribution’ to a conversation. I’ve had to bite my tongue many times, and it still regularly goes south.

What has helped me to become better at it is to be at least aware of it. By putting a sticky note on my notebook with the different phases, I am reminded all day to listen consciously. In addition, it causes people to start asking questions because they are curious about what it means. In this way, I not only learn to listen more consciously day after day, but it also infects the people around me.

My personal notebook.

What has this brought me so far?

  • I think more often now before I open my mouth. Because of this, I come up with better-substantiated arguments. This results in my proposals being adopted more often.
  • When listening empathically, I realize that this is his/her story. I don’t always have to do something with it. I don’t have to help others solve their problem; however, I can now help others solve their problems by themselves more easily.
  • Dialogues have become more constructive. Less ”lot of talk, but little content “ and more “the words that are said also offer value.”

Again, I am not there yet, but this has helped me to become a better listener. Hopefully, it can deliver the same value to you. I would really like to hear your views on this and discuss it further.

The following video shows the different forms/levels of listening:

Otto Scharmer on the four levels of listening

Acknowledgment to Otto Scharmer for his insights and lessons during u.lab: Leading From the Emerging Future of Presencing Institute.

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