Deep Listening

Some define leadership as convening essential conversations—conversations with the power to transform our understanding of complex situations and to generate innovative options for action. A key component of these conversations is deep listening.

Deep listening is a process of listening to learn. It requires the temporary suspension of judgment, and a willingness to receive new information – whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Deep Listening Happens at Several Levels

Deep listening can happen at:

  • The intrapersonal level, at which an individual is listening deeply to his or her own interior experience. Mindfulness practice is a foundational training for deep listening at the intrapersonal level. (For an example, listen to a guided meditation on this site. Just click on the Meditation Exercise at left.)
  • The interpersonal level, at which one individual is focused on listening to one or more others. We are often preoccupied by thinking about what we will say when it is our turn to speak. But it is how we listen that is transformative, especially in groups.
  • The group level, at which one or more individuals is listening deeply to the voices of many others.

Principles for Deep Listening

There are three key principles and practices for deep listening:

  • Listen to learn
  • Listen for understanding rather than agreement
  • Ask powerful questions

The Role of Questions

“Essential conversation is a meaningful exchange in an atmosphere of trust…Meaningful engagement creates a connected and interdependent whole.”
    ~Craig Neal, The Art of Convening: Nine Ways to Transform Your Meetings, 
    Gatherings and Conversations 
(Upcoming publication Fall 2010)

Powerful questions can be one of your most effective leadership resources. They are questions that:

  • Grab your attention and draw you in
  • Inspire curiosity and learning
  • Put focus on what has meaning and possibility
  • Require introspection and reflection
  • Release initiative
  • Generate innovation

“Answers have a short shelf life because they are particular to a specific place and time, but good questions – ones that carry the power of insight and growth –  are useful now, in this place, as well as in the future.”
    ~Glenda Eoyang, Coping with Chaos

Benefits of Deep Listening

“Deep listening evokes presence, which some define as “deeper listening, of being open beyond one’s preconceptions.” 
    ~Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society

Deep listening also:

  • Allows you to engage without assumptions
  • Establishes trust by demonstrating that you value what others say and take them seriously
  • Cultivates authentic connection with others -- the quality of your attention influences the quality of the conversation
  • Helps clarify what is really going on
  • Enables new possibilities to surface

Practices for Deep Listening

“People want you to understand their motivation and explanation of their behavior in their own terms. Creating alternative interpretations, listening to the song beneath the words, is inherently provocative, but necessary if you are going to address the real stakes, fears and conflicts.” 
~Ronald Heifetz, Leadership on the Line

Individual Level

  • A practice for deep listening on the individual level is to listen for what is alive in a person that hasn’t been spoken yet. What are the speaker’s deeper feelings and desires, emotions, desires, wants, and needs?
  • Another practice is to reflect back what you hear. How can you move beyond the formula of “what I hear you saying…” to a place where your reflection offers a genuine understanding and empathy for the speaker’s meaning?

Group Level

  • A practice for deep listening on the group level involves listening for patterns and themes, and synthesizing what you hear. By reflecting a system back to itself, the system can self-organize in new ways. Listen for what may be alive in the room but has not yet been explicitly named.

These simple practices can transform relationships and circumstances.

A Story about Deep Listening on the Individual Level

Kelly’s brother, Josh, called to tell her he had been fired again and to complain about his former boss and co-workers. In Kelly’s opinion, Josh’s life was a mess. He would party into the wee hours of the morning, show up late to his job as a coffee shop barista, and now he was blaming his co-workers for not watching his back. 

Kelly’s usual approach when Josh called with troubles was to give him advice; to tell him he needed to cut down on partying and take charge of his life. This approach invariably led to conflict, leaving Kelly angry and disconnected from Josh. 

After this particularly frustrating phone call, Kelly decided to sit quietly by herself without an agenda other than to be aware and present. Right away Kelly noticed an almost overpowering impulse to pick up the phone and set Josh straight. But she inhibited that impulse and chose instead to attend to her own immediate experience. As she sat quietly, she observed a subtle kind of numbness. She was not only disconnected from Josh but from herself, too. Kelly stayed with the numbness without judgment. She noticed a little shakiness, which she identified as the flavor of fear in her body. Kelly recognized that her thoughts were filled with worries about Josh’s future. She spontaneously realized that she had been indulging her knee-jerk reaction to “lecture” Josh as a way to avoid her own anxiety. Once Kelly saw that she had been trying to “fix” Josh’s life as a way to “fix” her own feelings, she saw her part in the pattern of conflict. With this increased awareness, Kelly understood how to set conditions for a more constructive pattern in her relationship with her brother.

Kelly decided to try deep listening in conversation with Josh. She suspended her certainty about what was good for him and focused instead on being present to his experience, feelings, and needs. When she brought openness and empathy to the conversation, instead of her habitual agenda to get Josh to “straighten up,” he opened up to her at a deeper level. He was reflective and took more responsibility for his situation than she had known him to do before. Kelly began to hear things he wanted for himself that were aligned with what she would want for him. They were on the same page together. It was a small, but critical step to improving both of their relationships to themselves, as well as to each other.

References and Further Reading

Eoyang, G. (1997). Coping with Chaos. Lagumo.

Linsky, M., Heifetz, R. (2002). Leadership on the Line. Harvard Business Press.

Neal, C. (2010). The Art of Convening: Nine Ways to Transform Your Meetings, Gatherings and Conversations. (To be published in Fall 2010.)

Rosenberg, M. (2003). Non-Violent Communication. Puddledancer Press.

Scharmer, C.O. (2009). Theory U: Leading From the Future As it Emerges. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Senge, P., Scharmer, C.O. , Jaworski, J., Flowers, B. (2005). Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society. Broadway Business.

Strachan, D. (2006). Making Questions Work. Jossey-Bass.

Whitney, D. (2010). The Power of Appreciative Inquiry. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Reflection & Exercises

A Reflection Question

Think about a situation where you would like to bring deep listening. How might that be different from your current approach? Take notes on what you learn.

Exercises to Deepen Understanding