Listening can be just the opposite of what we might think

4 techniques to become a better listener to create a better world

“It’s hard for me to let go.” The words were spilling from my mouth. “I invested so much in this — my time, my heart, my money.” I wasn’t talking to a friend about a relationship, but to my colleagues about our move to a new office space. It was during our weekly team meeting when we efficiently dealt with both my emotions and a group decision to take on a studio space.

It is an example of how we can both be caring AND take care of business. This is the challenge of our future, how do we add more care while staying in movement? How do we take time to hear each other, without compromising efficiency? How do we invite conversation without polarization?

The key to these questions is in our listening skills. Canadian Deputy Minister, Isabelle Mondou, (Minister for the COVID-19 response, Privy Council Office) recently shared how learning to listen is the key skill she requires for her work, and that nowhere do we really learn to do this well. At a recent panel at the Canada School of Public Service on The Power of Great Questions and Better Listening for Engaging Dialogue I spoke about 4 techniques that are hugely impactful and easy to learn and wanted to share them properly here.

1. Silent witnessing

My workplace culture includes the silent witnessing of people when they take voice; people are acknowledged without taking a team or group off track. Here’s an example of silent witnessing in action.

Looping back to the decision about the new studio space, I was on board and, at the same time, I was struggling with the change. In our meeting, we discussed the proposal with a formal round-robin to share our reactions*. Each one of us was invited to let out our thoughts and feeling so that everyone could know where we were at. Up to that point, the reactions were oozing positivity. Yes, the new space was gorgeous, with a fully opening window. Yes, the wall footage for our creative workshops was making us drool. Yes, the parking in front was so convenient. Yes, it was exciting to imagine what we could experiment in a space we governed on our own.

Then it was my turn, the party pooper.

As the co-founder of the coworking space we were moving on from, I had been pushing my emotions and thoughts back for a while. Now the words were jumping from my mouth. My initial dreams of what the coworking space might be, the weeks and months of care I had put into setting it up. My financial investment in the space. How I had never imagined that my own business would one day outgrow it. Events I had lived there. My frustration about the friction we were experiencing as we were outgrowing it. The words fumbled forward, a mourning of sorts; that I had been avoiding, as one does. In all, I must have spoken for 3 or 4 minutes.

We have a protocol to help us with our silent listening. No one is allowed to interrupt, to comment or console, to offer advice or aid. We do what we call “witnessing”. That means we silently receive what the person is saying. No words are spoken. The focus is to try to hear the person, see the person, and understand their perspective. That’s it. The protocol protects me in speaking authentically and finding my words. It also keeps us efficient, by not letting the point spin out into a time-consuming conversation. My colleagues manage their guilt, frustration, or desire to support me, in real-time. The goal is that I feel seen and acknowledged. That is enough. The moment of being witnessed helped me integrate and fully accept the change. Without it, I would have been grumpy about the move. My feelings would have festered. The practice of listening through witnessing keeps us all in healthy motion. Conversation isn’t always the way.

2. Act upon the subtle messages

A good conversation usually has a good question to hold it. I work with three criteria for a good question**. The question needs to be open-ended, because beginning with whyhow or what can take you more easily into new spaces. The question needs to be constructive to help counter our human reflex to let fear cloud over possibilities, so we make sure the question is taking us to our higher thinking and creativity. Finally, the question needs to be inclusive so that whoever is involved in the conversation feels included and connected enough to engage.

But these criteria are not enough. Subtle listening can help us know if we are working with an appropriate question or not. For example, every fall at my work we ask the question; How are we going to approach our fall off-site? ***. This year, even if the world has changed, I made the mistake of asking the question as per usual. One of my colleagues was evidently not comfortable with the question. She didn’t say it explicitly. I could tell because she switched from using the term “we” when she spoke and was now referring to her team as “you”. Alarm bells. She had pulled herself out of the group. That’s a clue to know that the question is no longer appropriate and needs to be shifted.

So, we altered the question to: How can we organize the fall offsite so that everyone will join? Now the question sounds so much better. It is actually integrating the non-spoken issues at hand around the COVID context. I am overly confident with the new formulation, and yet still I observe my colleague struggling with it, she’s speaking in a “we” that sounds forced and is pulled back.

Finally, a better question reveals itself: How might we take care of our health as we shift to being in physical space together again? Ah, a sigh of relief. The offsite was too much, too soon. It would have been more than fine in a typical year to begin with the first version, but this clearly was not a typical year.

It’s not enough to have a good question, we still need to listen in to see if that question is resonating and when it isn’t, change it. Listening for the nuanced changes in vocabulary, body language and tone are all essential parts of properly hearing one another. Without the subtle listening we can create issues and tensions.

3. Listening for a spectrum

Becoming more comfortable with differences can help reduce polarization. The anthropologist in me loves how richly diverse human beings are and I wouldn’t want it any other way. But somehow polarization sneaks its way in. Here is one tiny contribution to this space; one simple technique I’ve been using that helps me and those I’m talking with get out of oversimplification and our tendency to reach for hard certainties.

I try to explore things in a way that opens up a minimum and a maximum. So rather than asking “Should this street lane be for parking or for trees?”. The question can change to something like this “What is the minimum number of parking and the maximum number of parking spots that would make sense for the street lane?

The way the question is formulated shows that there is no one perfect answer. There are many options and even a single person will have a range within whatever their answer is. No simplification, no polarization, no right answer. Also, to answer you will need to engage with your own criteria of what might make a minimum or a maximum.

In my workplace, we use this for finances as well for services rendered. I like to think of what is the minimum or maximum I could understand as fair to pay someone, or even myself. Thinking in a spectrum of answers invites in so much more richness.

4. Listening from a fresh angle

The brain likes to take the same neural pathways when it listens. Almost always running the same course, day in and day out. That means we listen with our habitual ways and biases. There is a way to trick the brain into a fresh way of listening. We can give ourselves a deliberate angle or listening lens to listen with for a specific time. Afterwards, we then take a moment to see what came up. This practice can help fresh thoughts and insights reach the surface and contribute to thought-provoking dialogue.

I often work with the listening lenses that have emerged from my book Going Horizontal.

  • Courage — Remember courage can be quiet, even invisible
  • Invitation — An invitation can be accepted or declined
  • Asking for help (or offering it) — It is kind to ask for help
  • Trust and vulnerability — One feeds the other
  • Balance between individual and collective — Sometimes it’s a dance
  • Flow and ease — It doesn’t need to be difficult
  • Equitable and fair — Equitable is not equal
  • Power — Power can be seen as scarce or abundant
  • Being present with oneself — Self-awareness and intuition
  • Differences coexisting — Understanding each other
  • Emergence — Giving time and space for something to take form
  • Creativity — It can be intentional or accidental
  • Care and wellbeing — For you, each other and wider
  • Authenticity — Being who we really are

If you pick one of these lenses prior to someone telling you a story and commit to listening from that specific lens then you might be surprised! You can challenge yourself to deliberately listen from a lens that you would not usually be attracted to and see what happens. If you don’t use a lens, at least be aware of what your default listening lens is. This may take some practice too since we’re not always aware of our default positions or lenses when listening.

Wrap up

We have touched on four concrete tips for better listening that help create more useful questions and higher quality dialogue. Each is in service of building a more caring and compassionate world.

1. Listening as silent witnessing

2. Listening is noticing the subtle information and acting upon it

3. Listening is actively creating space for differences

4. Listening from a fresh angle

These practices have the potential to create more flow, care, and openness in how we communicate and come together. Each one is something that you can engage in individually while in everyday conversations. Each one can also become formally embedded within your organizational culture using supportive protocols or rituals.

What’s important is that within these four tips is an assumption that you care about people and the world and that you want to exercise your own personal leadership to positively impact it. Listening is more active and strategic then a simple head nodding!

— — — — — — — –


*We use the Generative decision-making protocol for consent based decision making.

** My inspiration for good questions: The art of powerful questions

***I use the term “off-site” here for ease of understanding. The real term we use in my organization is “retreat”. To know more about the nuance, see my article How to turn your team off site into a proper retreat.

Further reading

For more accessible practices that have the power to improve your work environment while creating a more humane world, see my book Going Horizontal. It has dozens.

It is an art to be in an organization in a way that is both caring for people and keeps the focus on the business. My colleague Ria Baeck wrote an article on just this point: When ‘bringing your whole self to work’ and ‘taking care of each other’ starts to erode the business.

If you want to go deeper into realm of listening there is a book I discovered on a learning expedition to Finland has accompanied me over the years: Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs and, of course, there is the later work on the Four Levels of Listening by Otto Scharmer.

This article is also published at where I work.

Shout out to Canadian Deputy Minister, Isabelle Mondou, Privy Council Office, Elodie Jacquet, Centre for Dialogue, University of Simon Fraser and Ryan Hum, Vice President, Information Data Management, Canada Energy Regulator. It was our conversations together that spurred this article.

Thanks to Olivia Horge for editing.