Listen to be listened to

Do you recognise the following?

You are eager to enthusiastically share an experience with someone. The latest travel you have made with significant others, for instance.

The other person interrupts at least as enthusiastically, recuperates your travel story by starting to talk about his latest travel.

The effect on the other: never mind, I’ll tell my Story to someone else. 

Or, more drastically: I’ll keep my stories to myself or share them with someone else from now on.

Carefully listening to someone is such a tremendously difficult task, it seems.

Sometimes my enthusiasm and me take over too, and some parallel talks arise between my conversation partner and me.

While all I could do more of, is ‘leading from behind’: my next tailor-made question or remark follows directly after the very last utterance of the person(s) I’m listening to. 

Or I could hum and with interest say ‘aha’ sometimes. Nothing more, for the time being.

In the article ‘Uncovering the Blind Spot of LeadershipOtto Scharmer distinguishes between 4 types of listening:

Listening 1: Downloading

‘Yeah, I know that already.’

I call this type of listening downloading – listening by reconfirming habitual judgements. When everything you hear confirms what you already know, you are listening by downloading.

Listening 2: Factual

‘Ooh, look at that!’

This type of listening is factual or object-focused: listening by paying attention to facts and to novel or disconfirming data. 

You switch off your inner voice of judgment and focus on what differs from what you already know. Factual listening is the basic mode of good science. You let the data talk to you. You ask questions, and you pay careful attention to the responses you get.

Listening 3: Empathic

‘Oh, yes, I know exactly how you feel.’

This deeper level of listening is empathic listening. 

When we are engaged in real dialogue and paying careful attention, we can become aware of a profound shift in the place from which our listening originates. We move from seeing the objective world of things, figures, and facts (the ‘it- world’) to listening to the story of a living and evolving self (the ‘you-world’). 

Sometimes, when we say ‘I know how you feel,’ our emphasis is on a kind of mental or abstract knowing. But it requires an open heart to really feel how another feels. An open heart gives us the empathic capacity to connect directly with another person from within. When that happens, we enter new territory in the relationship; we forget about our own agenda and begin to see how the world appears through someone else’s eyes.

Listening 4: Generative

‘I can’t express what I experience in words. My whole being has slowed down. I feel more quiet and present and more my real self. I am connected to something larger than myself.’

This type of listening connects us to an even deeper realm of emergence. 

I call this level of listening ‘generative listening,’ or listening from the emerging field of future possibility.

This level of listening requires us to access our open will – our capacity to connect to the highest future possibility that can emerge. 

We no longer look for something outside. We no longer empathize with someone in front of us. ‘Communion’ or ‘grace’ is maybe the word that comes closest to the texture of this experience.

How do you listen to people?

When you operate from Listening 1 (downloading), the conversation reconfirms what you already knew. You reconfirm your habits of thought: ‘There he goes again!’.

When you operate from Listening 2 (factual listening), you disconfirm what you already know and no-tice what is new out there: ‘Boy, this looks so different today!’.

When you operate from Listening 3 (empathic listening), your perspective is redirected to seeing the situation through the eyes of another: ‘Boy, yes, now I really understand how you feel about it. I can sense it now too.’

And finally, when you operate from Listening 4 (generative listening), you have gone through a subtle but profound change that has connected you to a deeper source of knowing, including the knowledge of your best future possibility and self.

On top of these ways of listening, I would like to add a 5th type: listening with strength ears 

It could resemble the aforementioned generative listening, yet is more specific to me. I’ts progress focused listening: detecting with a lot of attention, with your two ears, how the person you are speaking with has:

1 – made progress in some way, even briefly/a bit
2 – encountered positive exceptions to his problem
3 – found out more what he wants
4 – witnessed about things that he has tried
5 – indicated cues to steps forward
6 – testified about resources that helped / are currently helping / could help him

Listening and detecting the absence or the opposite of all of the 6 examples above, will probably lead to you responding differently, with the risk of creating more problem focused discussions.

Remember Steve de Shazer: ‘Problem talk creates problems, solution talk creates solutions.’

Truly listening to someone is the most relationship enhancing activity one can undertake. Listening with undivided attention, that is.

Not a glance at your phone, no frequent staring at the smiling waitress, no dreamy gaze in your eyes taking you to destinations that are not present in the discussion.

Listening by being fully present in the moment.

Speaking for myself: I notice when I’ve really listened to someone when I remember the colour of the speaker’s eyes, and when my answer-question ratio is very low: I allow for much more curious questions from my side than putting my own answers or stories on the table first.

There’s still time for that later in the discussion, but first we need to listen to each other more skillfully.


What about you, what do you catch yourself doing when you’re a good listener? What else do you do when the other catches you being a good listener?


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

More Articles


Send Me A Message

How can I help you?


Subscribe to my newsletter