How are you listening as a leader?

Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today's post is by C. Otto Scharmer.

 

Listening is probably the most underrated leadership skill. How you listen can be life-changing; not just business- or industry-changing.

At the heart of most examples of colossal leadership failures -- which are in no short supply -- leaders are often unable to connect with and make sense of the “VUCA” world around them; that is, a world defined by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Listening is important to us as individuals, not solely to leaders. If you are not a good listener, there is no way that you can develop real mastery in any discipline.

In my work, the most consistent feedback we have received from the hundreds of workshops, programs and innovation journeys we have facilitated is this: Shifting your mode of listening is life-changing. Shifting how you listen, the way you pay attention, sounds like a really small change.

But here is the thing: Changing how you listen means that you change how you experience relationships and the world. And if you change that, you change, well, everything.

It is truly amazing how quickly people can shift their way of listening and attending. What I mean by “attending” is this: Wherever you put your attention as a leader, as an innovator, as a change maker, or as a parent, that is where the energy of the system around you will go -- including your own energy.

But being a leader who listens takes work: practice, review, peer feedback and more practice. To become a better listener, you must understand the four archetypes of listening.

The four types of listening reflect the underlying principles of the opening of the mind, heart and will are:

  1. Dowloading: This type of listening is limited to reconfirming what we already know. Nothing new penetrates our bubble.
  2. Factual listening: We let the data talk to us and notice disconfirming information. Doing this requires opening the mind—that is, the capacity to suspend our habits of judgment.
  3. Empathic listening: We see the situation through the eyes of another. Doing this requires opening the heart: using our feelings and our heart as an organ of tuning in to another person’s view.
  4. Generative listening: We listen for the highest future possibility to show up while holding a space for something new to be born.

When you listen on Level 1, downloading, your attention is not focused on what the other person says but on your own inner commentary. For example, you may be planning what you will say next.

As you cross the threshold from downloading to factual listening (Level 1 to 2), your attention moves from listening to your inner voice to actually listening to the person in front of you. You open up to what is being said.

When you start to cross the threshold from factual to empathic listening (Level 2 to 3), your place of listening shifts from you to the other person. That is is, from your small vehicle (the intelligence of your head) to your larger vehicle (the intelligence of your heart). You step into the other person’s perspective. For example, you might think, “Oh, I may not agree, but I can see how she sees this situation.”

Finally, when you cross the threshold from empathic to generative listening (Level 3 to 4), your listening becomes a holding space for bringing something new into reality that wants to be born. You listen with openness to what is unknown and emerging.

What I have learned in my work is that the success of leadership and change work -- whether that’s organizational change, industry change or life-changing work -- depends on the ability of you, the leader, to observe your quality of listening and to adjust the quality of listening to what is needed in each situation.

Dr. C. Otto Scharmer is a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founder of the Presencing Institute. He chairs the MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation that helps leaders from business, government, civil society to innovate at the level of the whole system. His just-published "Essentials of Theory U" serves as a pocket guide for practitioners that distills all of the research and materials found in "Theory U and Leading from the Emerging Future."

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