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What Are You Listening For?

By Cultures Of Dignity | July 3, 2019

What Are You Listening For?

Listening for connection, understanding, or confirming what you already believe?


Recently we co-facilitated a three-day training with 22 people from five continents with theInternational Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Our host was the Association for the Advancement of International Education and our goal was creating a new approach to connect Social Emotional Learning with child safety and protection.

In preparation for working with leaders from vastly different communities and cultures, we focused on how to create a space for us to truly listen and collaborate with one another. A foundation of our work at Cultures of Dignity has always been, “listening is being ready to be changed by what you hear.” But how do you break that down for people? We found inspiration in the work of Otto Scharmer, taught to us by consultants James Edwards and Emma Ruffin.

We were deeply inspired by their breakdown and categorization of listening. The four basic levels are:

1. Habitual Listening: Listening from habit to confirm what you already know (think: cognitive bias). We all do this. We listen to someone with decisions already made based on partial information and assumptions. It’s why so many of us only read and watch specific media outlets.

2. Factual Listening: Listening with an openness to new information that could change your opinion or perception. A clue that you are truly engaged in factual listening is when you say “Oh, I never would have thought of that.”

3. Empathic Listening: Listening to understand someone else’s experiences/perspective/reality. The key word is “understand”: when engaging in this level of listening the goal is to suspend judgement and engage an authentic quality of listening that comes from the heart.

4. Generative Listening: Listening with the intent to expand on old concepts and usher forward new ones. This is where “yes, and” comes in. Think collaboration, not competition.

Often when we are listening to one another and aren’t truly hearing the other person. 

Take a moment to think about the people you most often interact with. Have you recently found yourself frustrated with a co-worker or a loved one? Perhaps it’s not the content of the conversation, but the intent behind your attention.

It is easiest and most tempting to fall into habitual listening, to listen for what you already know. So take a second to ask yourself, Am I listening to understand new information? Am I listening to understand different interpretations of an idea? Am I listening to receive orders? Am I listening to collaborate? 

The next time you are with a person and find yourself listening in a way that does not serve the situation, take note, pause, and say something in your own words that communicates the following, “I need to take a moment and reset myself because I am not listening to you in the way this situation or you deserve.”

Get curious. Together, we can change the way we are seen and heard.

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What Are You Listening For?