Listen as if Your Life Depended on It

July 3, 2014

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.  The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward.  When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” 

-Karl Menninger, MD

One of the most important services I provide as a consultant is to really, really listen to people and to support them in learning how to listen deeply to themselves and to others. Is listening enough? Does it in fact create and expand us?

I have noticed that when people have an opportunity to speak about something important to them, it takes them a while to be sure that it is OK to do that … they are embarrassed to be talking about themselves. How else can we forge connections, get to know each other, have meaningful dialogue and create empowered organizations, if not by speaking what it is in our minds, hearts and souls?

For the last year, I have been studying “listening.” Theory U, developed by Otto Scharmer, is a theory of change that describes Four Levels of Listening. The theory promotes listening so deeply, with all of our senses, and opening our minds, hearts and even suspending our will, to the point where we transform ourselves to become part of the whole community, the “social body.” That depth and breadth of listening, as described by Scharmer, is really the only way that transformative change can happen – when we move from the me to the we, or in Scharmer’s terms, from “ego to eco.” For more information see the website of the Presencing Institute.

Inspired by my study of theory U, I have also learned a little about Pauline Oliveros’ 40 years of pioneering work called “Deep Listening.” For more information, see the Deep Listening website and Pauline Oliveros’ website. From the first link, Pauline Oliveros describes Deep Listening as “a way of listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing.  Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, of one’s own thoughts as well as musical sounds.” She is Distinguished Research Professor of Music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY. Oliveros makes a compelling distinction between “exclusive listening” where we choose one thing to listen to in the wide range of possible stimuli and we listen to it to its nth degree; and “inclusive listening” where we actively listen to absolutely everything that comes into our awareness. Try both of these and you will be amazed, and look into her work and workshops.

When we focus our attention and listen deeply to another person, we hear the words, the feelings under the words, the subtleties of tone of voice and we “hear” the body language. This requires paying attention both inside ourselves and outside ourselves. And then, the focus and attention continue as we make meaning of what we’ve heard and engage in dialogue with others. Sometimes others make the same meaning as we do, sometimes not.

What propelled me to write this post was a piece by Mark Brady, The Naked Confessions of a Listening Warrior. Mark says that after experimenting with several different religious practices, he follows one called “Listening Practice.” And he says that it is really challenging. When we really, really listen, it is inevitable that, at some point we’ll become totally derailed – someone says something that is so amazing and wise and beautiful and transformative or is so darn scary and reactionary that you can’t believe that your ears haven’t closed up on their own accord. Or, we say something that we immediately wish we hadn’t. Staying with all of it no matter what it is, is Listening Practice, according to Brady. And that is what makes it so challenging.

In my experience, listening really deeply, to myself and to others, with my whole body – skin, cells, ears, heart, open mind, open heart, soft belly – is a gift of life. It is the essence of being alive, in relationship and in the present. And, it is hard to stay in relationship with myself and the other person when I feel impatient or bored or scared or mesmerized, or trapped.

I believe that one of the jobs of a leader is to create a culture where listening deeply, with compassion, is common practice and it is a goal. There are several parts to this in my mind:

  • Taking the time to listening deeply to ourselves so we know where we stand and what we feel.
  • Suspending what we know as “truth” in order to be open to what others have to say.
  • Working hard to stay in relationship with others, even if we don’t like what they are saying, in order to create space for diverging voices, for the benefit of the whole group or system.
  • Deep compassionate listening does not mean that we stay in a particular conversation that feels unnecessarily aggressive, but it does mean circling back to the person to learn more about what that was about.

Leaders have the opportunity to foster meaningful, transformative dialogue by creating a culture of deep listening. True dialogue can promote understanding across divisions and divides. Business improves because people are inspired and empowered.

Is it worth the work and the courage it takes? Well, I’m not sure what else there is, really, if we are to open ourselves to others in our organizations, stay in community and preserve this planet.

Listen as if your life depended on it … it does. 


Martha Lask’s Blog

Occasional musings about books, articles or tools that might be of interest; I welcome your comments.

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