Deep Level Listening

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Woman with hand to her ear

You probably think a lot about what you listen to, but did you ever really wonder about how you listen? When we think of great communication skills, we tend to focus on how we express ourselves. When we feel like we’ve expressed ourselves well (think of that speak, important talk or presentation you were terrified of giving), we feel a burst of adrenaline and our self-confidence soars. But, hang on, that’s only half the story of being a great communicator. What about how we listen? And, not just the kind of listening where we’re looking for a way to jump in and share our knowledge. We need to go a little deeper.

One of my favorite speakers on this subject is Dr. Otto Scharmer, a Senior Lecturer at MIT and co-founder of the Presencing Institute, known for his leadership development programs and MITxu.lab, a massive open online course. Aside from all of that… I think he lays out a simple and really intriguing idea. He describes four levels of listening. The first level is “listening by downloading,” which means that I’m paying attention to what I already know. It’s a bit limited and automatic. I’m reflecting the past not the present moment and basically reconfirming what I already know. “Level 2 listening” is factual listening. We notice what is different and bring more of an open mind. “Level 3 listening” is empathic listening. Listening with an open heart. You see a situation through they eyes of another. There is more emotional connection as you start to listen from the place where that other person is speaking from. “Level 4 Listening” is generative listening with an open will. This type of listening helps us to connect more fully with who we are and who we want to be — the future possibility of ourselves.

Examples of Level 4 Listening can be seen in great educators, coaches, mentors, our boss, or parent. They see you in terms of your highest future possibility. And here’s the best part: you can cultivate this deepest level in yourself. It means paying attention to your thoughts, motivations, and possibilities of your authentic sense. You will ultimately be able to apply this level of listening to those around you and, most importantly, to yourself.

Four Levels of Listening

Otto Scharmer


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