Listening - a key leadership capacity in times of disruption

Listening is probably the most underrated leadership capacity today, even though listening is at the source of all great leadership. Many of today’s leadership failures originate from ( a) lack of listening. A lack of connecting to what is really going on in reality right now. - Otto Sharmer, MIT

Why do we collectively create results that nobody wants?

I bet none of us wake up in the morning thinking  “today I want to destroy the environment and increase inequality between genders”. Yet, despite so many great intentions and initiatives, why do our attempts to deal with the challenges of our time so often fail?

Theory U, a holistic change and leadership methodology for individuals, organisations and societies, developed at MIT, argues that our collective failure results from our unawareness to the deeper dimensions of leadership and transformational change. It’s core assumption is that the visible results we experience, such as gender inequality or climate change, are merely symptoms of deeper anomalies in our system. It invites leaders to address the root causes of today’s complex challenges through a new consciousness of their own role in creating or maintaining the existing system. 

The theory literally follows a U shape. It means that in order to move from current reality to desired reality, we need to go through a profound deconstruction before we can start reconstructing something new that is not just replicating the past. In other words: Letting go of what no longer serves us and through that process letting the new solutions arise: leaning into the emerging future. Only through engaging in such a process can leaders respond with creativity and innovation to the complex challenges we as a society face.

The foundational capacity of moving through the U curve - from current reality to innovative solutions - is listening. Listening to others, listening to oneself and listening to what emerges from the collective.

Changing how we listen is not a small thing. It ultimately means that we transform how we experience relationships and the world around us. 

Let’s take as an example the recent racial injustice demonstrations. Either leaders close their minds, hearts and will and respond with ignorance, blame and fear. This results in staying in the vicious cycle of injustice and collective trauma and reinforcing the ineffective system that keeps it in place. Or, leaders start truly listening to what is going on, observing and inquiring with curiosity, compassion and courage into what lies beneath the symptoms. Listening is the key leadership capacity for stepping into the highest future possibility that all disruptive moments hold.

Below you can see the 4 levels of listening from the Theory U framework. Can you recognize where your team or organization tends to be at?

Each form of listening requires a specific quality or inner state of awareness. 

When we apply these qualities of listening to how we talk with our peers and co-workers they result in the following types of conversations which in turn result in very different concrete outcomes.

Just think about cross-gender conversations as an example.

  • Listen from habit - Politeness: Exchange of polite phrases rather than saying what is really going on. “I express what others want to hear so I don’t challenge the status quo.”   

  • Factual listening - Debate, talking though: People bring different opinions to the table and don’t hesitate to challenge the status quo. However, these types of interactions often result in debates in which everyone tries to beat down the other person’s opinion. “What I think is most important and right.

  • Empathetic listening - Dialogue: Starting to inquire into each other’s views, empathically listening to the other and exchanging thoughts and ideas. “Tell me more about your idea/experience.”

  • Generative listening - Collective Creativity: Ideas emerge collectively, people no longer say “this is my idea” - things emerge as the result of a common dialogue and the group taps into collective creativity, new ideas and inspiration.

So what are some practices that allow us to move into empathetic listening and tap into the collective creativity within our teams and organisations?

  • Check-ins: Start meetings with a check-in round asking everyone to briefly share: How are you today? What is your intention for this meeting? This will increase participation throughout the session, engagement from a more personal level, and focus on the topic.

  • Invite intentional moments that allow for slowing down, create space and/or integrate what has been done before. For example: moment of stillness, short centering practice.

  • Suspend judgement: Allow an opportunity for reflection or for individual journaling/note taking before answering and engaging in a discussion. Invite people to talk from the “I”: their own experience and perspective.

  • Questions over advice: When possible, prefer questions instead of giving advice (coaching attitude). For difficult group conversations, use a talking piece to avoid interruptions and debate mode. Only the person with the talking piece can speak. This traditional Native American custom helps to access empathetic and generative listening.

  • Reformulate to ensure common understanding, e.g. "I hear you saying/feeling/needing/…”.

  • Practice “meta-communicating” about how you are interacting: you could introduce the 4 levels of listening and evaluate together with your team where you tend to be and why

  • Mindfulness: practice mindfulness in your daily life in order to stay centred and connected to the present moment

This blog post is a summary of an interactive online workshop held in April for the Gender Champions Network.

Author: Anna Krebs is a Catalyst for Gender Equality at Collaboratio Helvetica, Facilitator and Change Agent. Her work aims at awareness-based transformation in individuals and organisations. She applies the Theory U framework in her work on gender equality in organisations.