Blog: Learning Curve

The Practice of Choosing Wisely

You get one marshmallow now or two in an hour. I remember this test, which proved a valuable point about emotional intelligence: that our temperament can forecast future success. Delaying immediate gratification paid more dividends—even more than IQ—to one’s success.

This seems a quaint notion now, a quarter-century later, as we experience an abundance of information and daily inundation of content with a profusion of choices.

Perhaps the most important capacity today is the capacity to choose wisely.

Choosing requires the judgment to sort priorities. Without it, everything appears the same and becomes an emergency to do now (lacking priority).

Coaches and consultants often observe “busyness” as lacking time, boundaries (or balance), and focus on time management, self-care, or prioritizing. But at the heart of this issue is something more fundamental and confusing: choices.

What, how, and why we choose are often unclear to us unless and until we reflect on our relationship to “choice” with a clear mind.

The Paradox of Choice

In his 2004 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that the diminishing returns of additional choices paralyze rather than liberate us.

While Schwartz posits that freedom of choice is critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy, he also argues that eliminating choices in certain situations can greatly reduce anxiety.

Schwartz points to how the act of choosing intersects with our notions of free will, power, and responsibility. The sense of control we often get from choosing can be overwhelmed by the number of choices we cannot absorb, evaluate, or fully understand. We also often focus on the freedom of choice while dismissing the responsibility that we must take for our choices.

If we are unclear about what matters to us, beyond others’ expectations of us, we are more likely to choose from scarcity, from not (being) enough. Choosing from scarcity can cause greater regret, guilt, anxiety, and insecurity, without ever realizing satisfaction and the possibility of freedom.

If this sounds abstract, consider the frustration expressed in the tweet below.

How is this possible? What can we do about it?

Paralyzing or Liberating?

Capitalistic logic might indicate that more choices mean more competition, which increases quality. We have more news media outlets today than ever before, with more choices for consumption: broadcast, print, blogs, apps, streaming services, etc. With the abundance of time and cyberspace, what have we produced?

Economics suggests that a rarity of space, time, and intellectual resources—once governed by square inches, barrels of ink, and broadcast minutes, providing fewer choices with greater deliberation—yields a more thoughtful product.

Today, the abundance of space and time has offered more choices and greater access, without any threshold. The result is a system that churns out information and misinformation that has drained our intellectual resources to absorb, evaluate, and be informed. Sure, we have some better products, but we also have many more inferior products. Most do not have the literacy, time, or energy to discern the difference. Instead of more choices liberating us, we become paralyzed by choices or numb to weighing the differences.

Maximizer or Satisfier?

According to Schwartz, how we view choices characterizes us as either a Maximizer or Satisfier.

The Maximizer has no standards. They operate from an ideal of “the best” rather than the idea of “good enough.” They engage in exhaustive research to seek out the best, becoming drained. When they decide, they are left wondering if another, better option might exist and are unsatisfied.

For this mindset, an abundance of choices is met with a fear of missing out (FOMO) and the possibility of never having enough. Applied to news, without standards we consume endlessly for fear that we will miss out on the latest. We become confused and drained.

The Satisfier operates from a predetermined standard for what is good enough. They apply that standard to any option before them. When the product or service (or toothbrush) meets their standard, they are satisfied and stop searching.

For this mindset, an abundance of choices is met with the recognition that “enough” is possible. Applied to news, we might read and view from a diet that informs us. Then we stop.

The satisfier also comes away with another lesson: some choice is necessary, but more choice is not always better.

FOMO or JOMO

Choosing often means being confronted with “choice shock,” claims Schwartz, who told Pacific Standard Magazine, “My suspicion is that [social media], and dating sites have created just the thing I talk about in connection with consumer goods: Nobody’s good enough, and you’re always worried you’re missing out.”

Many of us have become maximizers. The level of dissatisfaction manifests in daily life; each choice becomes an epic battle of confusion, research, and analysis to seek out the best. Our mantra: never settle for second best.

How can we shift our internal compass from FOMO to JOMO?

JOMO, or Joy of Missing Out, is about understanding yourself, your needs, and your desires, and choosing to live in a way that energizes you. To embrace JOMO, we need to practice reflecting on our choices to understand better what’s driving our FOMO. This piece on the shift from FOMO to JOMO offers some tips, from slowing down and disconnecting to reflecting, reconnecting, and testing.

Practice Choosing Well

In addition to these ideas, I have found four frames that support intentional choosing.

1 – Choosing Principle: Important or Urgent

I offer you this temporal grid, originated by President Eisenhower and popularized by Stephen Covey, to observe your choices.

Q1- PRESENT – We manage with deadline-driven projects, pressing issues, and tasks.

Q2- FUTURE – We manage important items that are not urgent but reflect our values. We live by our principles, not by others’ deadlines.

Q3- PAST – We use distractions to cope: to feel good and ignore items that are urgent or important.

Q4- PAST – We use distractions to neglect items, often becoming obsessed and fixated by disruptions.

A full life can exist in all four quadrants by choice. The issue becomes problematic when any single quadrant dominates our life or becomes habitual.

Living our potential requires choosing to make time for our future (Q2) daily; otherwise, urgent demands (Q1) dominates life. Navigating these quadrants will help us learn when to choose to choose.

2 – Knowing When to Choose: Standards for Thinking

Here, we choose which 25% of our choices deserve greater investigation and thinking while applying predetermined or well-considered criteria to the remainder. We prioritize our thinking by letting these criteria manage the bulk of our choices.

In 2012, President Obama explained to Vanity Fair why he only wears gray or blue suits: “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Similarly, I simplify my choices. My breakfast consists of a protein shake six days a week. It’s healthy, with fruit and 20g of non-animal protein to fuel my day. I may choose something different on the seventh day.

My wardrobe consists of a closet of heavier short- and long-sleeve black tee-shirts. When attending special events, I place “thinking” energy on dressing. Otherwise, my energy is placed elsewhere when I wake up.

Such thinking criteria also factor into my computing devices. I’ve used Apple for 35 years and developed these criteria: 1) excellent service after sale, 2) user-friendly interface, and 3) high quality, long-lasting products. Apple meets these standards, so I rely on them for my tablets, laptops, phones, and watches. It is a reliable “choosing partner.” A bonus is ease of integrating these devices. I use a similar approach for airplane tickets, lodging, travel locations, and other larger choices. My two or three criteria usually include a reliable “choosing partner.”

Of course, I reexamine these “choosing partners” every so often to avoid getting lulled into unwitting habits.

Learning when to choose prepares us for daily choices.

3 – Considering Reserves: Yes, No, Not Yet!

Choices that arrive quickly often evoke an automatic response. For most, that response is yes. Answering yes automatically can mean overpromising or becoming overcommitted or overwhelmed (see this blog). But the solution to a habitual yes isn’t just to automatically say no.

If you’ve explored items 1 and 2 on this list—defining what’s important and knowing when to choose—you can apply another standard for saying yes.

Here, we consider three reserves: Do I have a reserve of a) time, b) energy, or b) finances? Considering these reserves suggests we have the time, energy, or finances to expend. Paradoxically, building these reserves requires saying no to other choices that may deplete our reserves.

Also, consider that some choices are clearly no right now, while others may be a yes later. This is where we employ not yet: choosing two marshmallows later rather than one now.

I use not yet for two reasons: first, to evaluate any yes I want to consider. I examine my reserves and choose either yes or no. Second, I choose not yet if the merit of an idea arrives before it is timely. Not yet offers the freedom to hold off on an item until it ripens, perhaps next month, quarter, or year.

Signing up for a new learning program may be a good choice, but it may not be for me right now. A wiser choice comes from examining my reserves to guide me in choosing not yet.

Adding not yet to your toolkit will support you in choosing a more effective yes. It also allows you to manage reserves that strengthen your self-care and cultivate sustainable practices that evolve beyond reflexive whims or scarcity.

4 – Binary vs. Alternatives

Finally, as we examine our choosing, we can explore our view of choices. Most of us experience choices from a binary view: today, I will go to a movie or I will not. The choice is simple: to go or not to go.

A view of alternatives, however, offers us a range of choices that can cultivate possibility.

For instance, my choice is not merely whether I go to see a movie—rather, any choice discloses an anticipated future. We can go to the movie or go on a date, read a book, or play Words with Friends.

This reveals a world of alternatives, reminding us of our original challenge. Inviting alternatives without structures, standards, or reserves to guide us can be confusing and overwhelming. Choosing any alternative discloses the guilt of not choosing options from other possible futures. We choose and yet ponder what might have been.

Still, with structures for evaluating what’s important, standards for knowing when to choose, and reserves to guide us, we can allow alternatives to expand our imagination and open our mind to possibilities beyond a binary view of life.

Our Temporal Character

Understanding our most fundamental power of choice requires close inspection to examine how our thinking and actions appear in time. We are all afforded the same 24 hours, which reveal our choices and priorities about what matters most.

This last item considers how we can observe time in a way that reveals our choices, or, our temporal character, as posited by Heidegger: “Being, itself, is made visible in its temporal character.”

Examining our choices—what, how, and why we choose—is a critical step to disclosing our authentic nature. At the very least, our choices reveal whether we’d select one marshmallow now or two later.

However, this can be challenging, as it demands we explore these issues beyond mere time management. Do our choices reflect our principles from our authentic possibility?

Such a full inquiry is rare and can be intense. Few programs offer this level of immersion and depth of inquiry. We have developed one—perhaps it is right for you.


tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His focus includes ontological inquiry, into the nature of being; Integral theory to include Eastern wisdom and practice with Western learning and business models; and, Zen Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.


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Community: The missing ‘Gem’ in Learning

“Why do we confront learning opportunities with fear rather than wonder?”

“Why do we derive our self‐esteem from knowing as opposed to learning?”

“Why do we criticize others before we even understand them?”

It’s been 25 years since these questions opened the seminal paper Communities of Commitment: The Heart of Learning Organizations by Peter Senge and Fred Kofman. They persist concerning adult learning in today’s organizational life.

Beyond routine learning and acquiring simple skills, there’s a kind of learning that cultivates our capacity to learn and evolve as human beings. Let’s call it deep learning—it encourages the necessary challenges to grow beyond our beliefs and assumptions, to let go of outmoded thinking, to experiment with differences, and to develop practices that sustain continuous learning.

Deep learning develops learners in ways that match these times of exponential change and content overload. With our abundance of information (or access to it), learning challenges do not concern content, but rather context: perspective, judgment, and attitudes.

The gap we must bridge involves the distance between our cognitive and our affective life to integrate new knowledge in ways that alter our self-perceptions and our view of others.

Learning vs Knowing

Instead of delving deeper into these questions by Senge and Kofman, much of our attention and time since the publication of their seminal paper has focused on the surface of learning: the delivery and accumulation of knowledge.

We focus on assessments to measure knowledge; technology to access more information, accelerate training, and optimize content delivery; and new processes to reallocate ideas in micro-learning-sized bites for fast consumption.

A quick review of some of the literature for learning and development reveals the following: Concerns about data and analytics and transitioning to data-driven learning; use of marketing to guide or scale learning; the impact and ROI of learning; questions of why we measure and what we measure.

With our focus on technology, scaling, and delivery modes, we’ve made little progress in differentiating learning from knowing.

A recent Harvard Business Review article noted that “one in five Americans have a mental health condition. Tens of millions suffer from mild to moderate anxiety and other mood disorders.”

What’s the point of adult development if heaps of knowledge cannot cultivate sufficient wisdom to get us in touch with what deeply matters for ourselves and others?

Much of this has to do with larger inquiries of meta-learning. What is learning, as distinct from knowing? How do we cultivate a mindset for continuous learning? How can learning offer refuge for humans to process life at the speed of thought?

Learning Is Emotional

An area to begin our inquiry is the realization that adult learning involves an emotional challenge—not a cognitive one.

Emotions are important, as they can either motivate or impede learning. For learning professionals, navigating the emotional terrain can be demanding, especially with experiential learning, which is effective but can evoke emotional responses.

To experience learning as-lived requires an emotional understanding as follows:

  1. Resonance—to connect cognitive and affective experiences to understand the responses in our body that lives in us.
  2. Context—to leverage that understanding to create an emotional context that motivates and sustains learning that lives for us.

The result is that we are more likely to learn something we care about, that matters to our future—or that lives in our lives.

Still, learning occurs between a fear and a need; we traverse the fear of the unknown to fulfill an unmet need. Much of our fear comes from reflecting on our experience — where learning actually emerges. As philosopher and scholar, John Dewey, noted “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Whether guilt, shame, despair or dread, fear can impede our exploration and discovery in ways hidden from us, such as:

— Coming to terms with being a beginner, and fear of not knowing can provoke anxiety and stress. If “I don’t know,” are the three most difficult words to utter, then the second most difficult are, “I’m a beginner.”

— Being confused or stuck in confusion, can produce self-talk that something’s wrong with us. This can be isolating, and prevent us from seeking support.

— A self-critical mind that judges one’s intelligence, abilities, or competence can increase anxiety or stress.

— Fearing being perceived as stupid or dumb, or concern about looking foolish or asking silly questions, can often cause embarrassment or drive one to be defensive or unwilling to participate.

— Taking feedback so personally can cause us to overlook important connections and insights.

— Discovering the need to let go of outmoded views or ideas can become overwhelming or even dreadful, and can lead to a loss of identity.

Learning, Teaching, and Emotions

Once we recognize our fears, we can appreciate the roles emotions play, both as information to guide us and as the context for powerful learning.

According to author and thinker Alan Sieler in his text Coaching to the Human Soul, Volume II:

Our initial challenge as emotional learners is to observe what is—to allow ourselves to observe and acknowledge emotions as phenomena that constitute an integral part of how we are human.

This is the paradox of learning: the very emotions that can impede us are most critical to learning.

Typically, our traditional learning paradigm tends to intellectualize emotions: we talk about them rather than learn from them. We will explain why an emotion exists—distancing ourselves from the feeling—rather than sitting with its sensations or direct felt experience as it moves through our body.

Intellectualizing our emotions aligns well with cognitive learning, rather than affective learning. For most educators, teaching is more about the teachings than the learning. Emotional resonance or context is rarely a consideration.

A wise teacher can bring teachings to life, but ultimately the learner learns what they care about.

Delving into deep learning involves more than great teachers and teachings. In fact, we need more than is available individually or experientially.

This journey requires venturing East.

The Three Gems

Deep learning that expands our view of self and others cannot be achieved individually. And while teachings and a teacher are necessary, they are insufficient to expand our sense of self.

Hence, another paradox emerges: Only in a trusted community with a shared understanding can we grow individually.

Or, the notion of “individual” is bankrupt as we seek to evolve our being.

In Buddhism, the idea of the three gems (or three jewels) represents an interdependent whole that includes:

  • the Buddha (the teacher),
  • the Dharma (the teachings), and
  • the Sangha (the community).

The most important part of this triad, however, is not any of those items. The real treasure here is the wisdom of its interrelated, interdependent nature, an insight that is too often overlooked or dismissed.

In the West, we view this triad as three separate items to combine. We may add the element of community to our design without revisiting the teacher or our relationship to the teachings. We’ve now added a fragmented view to what is an elegant interdependent whole. The grid below illustrates some of the challenges of our default, fragmented view.

From an Eastern perspective, the elegance of the interdependent view locates each of these items within each of the others—three integral parts hanging together to support a greater whole.

Teacher (buddha). The teacher represents the awareness to cultivate wisdom from the community to better understand the teachings necessary to deepen awareness.

Teachings (dharma). Here, teachings are contextualized as truth, beyond any content. This involves the material embodied by the teacher and the material in the community that emerges in discussions, and especially the practices that metabolize and connect the content to each waking moment.

Community (sangha). The community reflects the teachings and informs the teacher through what Zen scholar Thich Nhat Hanh terms, “sangha eyes”:

When a sangha shines its light on our personal views, we see more clearly. In the sangha, we won’t fall into negative habit patterns.

We learn about ourselves from each other. The Dharma or teachings bind the space with commitment to becoming more. The context for community transcends the individual, yet mirrors the self to the direct experience of being.

Community Is Key

Our Western pedagogy and context of learning demand a bit more attention.

Honoring the three gems requires looking deeply at two elements of our deep socialization that undermine community: our independent–individualistic mindset and our competitive attitude.

We often accept learning in this context. We seek out a good teacher, purchase the suggested material, and go off on our own to learn – often to achieve more, even faster. Many of us would rather pay more for a teacher or teachings that release us from becoming vulnerable in a community.

A learning community is not a mere sentimental view of being human, although it often reveals that dimension. Designing such a culture requires personal mastery and rigorous agreements and practices in areas of listening, focusing attention, and cultivating intention to develop compassion and patience.

Honoring the interdependent wisdom of the three gems constitutes community as an integral part of becoming fully human, not as a social place to connect with others. Consider these perceptions of a learning community:

  1. Everyone is respectful and polite and asks great questions that yield interesting discussions. I feel safe and respected.
  2. Belonging to the community is rewarding and fulfilling. I like to connect with people who share so much in common with me.
  3. Everyone encourages feedback and questions each other in ways that hold me accountable and respect me as a member.
  4. Belonging to the community can be rewarding but also annoying and irritating, as I am asked to explore questions that make me uncomfortable.

If you are drawn to the first two items and repelled by the latter two, it’s likely you have not yet experienced community as outlined here.

Community Beyond “Individual” to Evolve Being

Community as an interdependent element of the three gems is the very place where we can be vulnerable, open to learning about ourselves in new ways. As stated by Thich Nhat Hanh, “take refuge in the sangha, and you’ll have the wisdom and support you need.”

This kind of learning is beyond who we are as individuals. It demands honest interaction, deep connection, and critical self-reflection to discover a new relationship to the self as an evolving being in the world. This realization happens in relation to others, to other ideas, or to situations that disclose individual identity to our self as an evolving process.

More importantly, community is the missing link that, when viewed interdependently with teaching and teacher, offers us refuge to learn from the direct, felt experience of our emotions as they emerge in our body and pass.

Embodying the three gems offers emotional resonance to connect cognitive and affective experiences that live in us with an emotional context to encourage and sustain learning that lives for us.

The three gems offer the fundamental support for being in community.

In community, we can be a beginner.

To continue this discovery, this post is a complement to the following blogs:


tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His focus includes ontological inquiry, into the nature of being; Integral theory to include Eastern wisdom and practice with Western learning and business models; and, Zen Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.


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Listening as Context and Practice

Listening is an underdeveloped asset in our leadership, culture, and organizational life. Deep listening expands our capacity to remain open, receive concerns, perceive experiences, and discover situations newly. And yet, as change becomes exponential and information assaults our senses, listening suffers.

For coaches, therapists, and educators, a failure to listen deeply can create professional negligence. For leaders, team members, and business professionals, it often produces unnecessary setbacks, misunderstandings, missed connections, or conflicts. My research emerges from the deep learning that informs deep listening. My work on listening involves several past blogs, as well as a white paper.

Our prior writings examine listening in a developmental model. This blog offers a previously unexplored aspect of listening: specific learnings and practices to expand and deepen one’s listening.

Listening as Context

What is listening? Let me begin with this: Speaking is insufficient to say what listening is. As soon as we breathe a word about listening, we’ve reduced its fullness. We’ve defined and limited a human phenomenon that is misunderstood, underappreciated, and highly involved.

We tend to observe listening as the opposite of speaking—in other words, if you are not speaking, then you must be listening. These observations engage a fatal error.

Listening as context is first a field of being, manifesting as a commitment; then as content as a competency, and then a skill. If this is news to you, please consider whether at some point you’ve reduced listening to something much less than what is possible.

Beyond levels of awareness or mindsets, listening as context allows for a field within which life emerges. I propose that such a field is governed by our openness to change. It expands our identity to include three interdependent states: intention, openness, and wholeness, each involving specific learnings and practices.

With each state, we awaken, deepen, and embody listening as a field or context to transcend the reactive self, competitive self, and fragmented self. Each of these identities results from our socialization and impedes deep listening.

I will briefly develop each state and review five learnings and four practices that I’ve discovered to sustain deep listening: 1) learning to observe, 2) practicing “coming back,” 3) learning to “not know,” 4) practicing resistance training, 5) learning to dissolve the “problem” paradigm, 6) practicing acceptance, 7) learning radical openness, 8) learning to “be with” possibility, and 9) practicing granting being.

Intention: Awaken the Field to Interrupt the Reactive Self

With intention, we increase consciousness to disclose and discover automatic, habitual energy that drives listening and choices. Ultimately, we become aware of our reactive self and interrupt its impact on us and others.

We create and cultivate space between opinions and actions. Some outcomes include:

  • The ability to distinguish between intentions, expectations, and impact.
  • Accurately reproducing communications, requests, and conditions of satisfaction.

Two practices and two learnings support this state: 1) learning to observe, 2) practicing “coming back,” 3) learning to “not know,” and 4) practicing resistance training.

1. Learning to Observe

Here, we begin with listening to your observer. We are always observing, but for most, it is casual and can be distracting. These four levels of observation reveal how layers of reality often happen in tandem. We can discern these levels upon reflection.

Level 1- Observe events around us—the rain falling, the dog barking, and the garbage truck driving by.

Level 2- Observe our direct experience of events. It’s raining, and I am wet. The dog’s barking is loud. The unpleasant smell of the garbage truck.

Level 3- Observe our internal state. I notice disappointment that it’s raining. I am delighted to see the dog. The garbage truck reminds me that I forgot to take out my trash, and I feel anger rising.

Level 4- Observe our listening. A stranger asks for directions. I pause and ask her to repeat the question. In a split second, I notice my listening. I set aside rising anger, disappointment, and delight. I now pay attention to the question.

2. Practicing “Coming Back”

The practice of coming back involves distinguishing between focus and concentration.

  • Focus is the span of attention or staying present.
  • Concentration is the depth of attention or staying grounded.

The practice of coming back supports both being present and staying grounded by focusing the mind on a single object, to the exclusion of other objects, to foster concentration on a single task. To practice, we notice distracting thoughts or sensations that arise, then gently return awareness to the primary object of experience (the breath, a word or conversation, etc.).

3. Learning To “Not Know”

The three hardest words to utter may be “I don’t know.” Yet, until we can become comfortable with not knowing, we cannot fully discover, inquire into, or embrace the uncertainty on the other side of our opinions and judgments. Paradoxically, freedom and openness emerge from that uncertainty.

To expand beyond what we already know, we practice letting go of the need to know, to prove, or to explain. We allow for unexpected discoveries.

— Listening for knowledge seeks certainty: the fixed and predictable. We are located in our head and thinking about, or intellectualizing, events.

— Listening from wisdom involves questioning knowledge. With humility and uncertainty, we experience events, using all our senses by tuning into our breath and body.

More importantly, avoid turning something new into something known. This reduces “differences” to similarities. Embrace each moment with a fresh perspective.

This learning is a fulcrum we revisit for cultivating deep listening. Using practices one and two, we become open to “learning to not know” to develop conditions for the next practice (4) and learning (5).

4. Practicing Resistance Training

The word resistance conjures thoughts and emotions that can be unsettling: confront, conflict, challenge, battle, defiance, oppose, or endure. Given our thoughts and feelings about resistance—either as resisting others or as experiencing resistance from others—we probably want to avoid any form of resistance.

Paradoxically, expanding awareness opens us to subtler levels of listening that will include giving and receiving unpleasant information. This openness in our listening invites a new level of concerns to accept or resist.

I offer Carl Jung’s thought, “What you resist, persists.” Conversely, what you can “be with,” acknowledge, and receive can dissolve and free space for what matters most. This is the hidden power of listening.

Resistance training requires all the previous practices and learnings to cultivate the muscle to engage perceived threats or stress. These techniques support us in “being with” conversations and situations as they emerge:

  • Be willing to set aside your point of view—identify and drop any assumptions and expectations.
  • Be open to observing how you resist. Notice any resistance or conflict to what’s being said. Self-inquiry: What is it they want to say that I don’t want to hear? Then, pause and breathe, and be where they are in the conversation.
  • Be committed to getting another’s full communication. Self-inquiry: Am I willing to stay in the conversation until I get someone’s full communication? Ask to be sure: Is there anything else to say?

Openness: Deepen the Field to Transcend the Competitive Self

With intention, we slowly allow space for conscious choice. Openness cultivates the space between opinion and action.

We transcend the competitive self by distinguishing “either/or” binary thinking and listening for “both/and” inquiries.

  • Openness grants space to more fully experience resistance and cultivate emotional awareness.
  • Stillness and silence cultivate “self ” as a process rather than “identity.”

Two learnings and one practice support this stage: 5) learning to dissolve the “problem” paradigm, 6) practicing acceptance, and 7) learning radical openness.

5. Learning to Dissolve the “Problem” Paradigm

Dissolving the problem paradigm involves venturing beyond problem-solving to creativity. This is a deeply rooted fixation in education, business, and even psychology. Learning scholar, Peter Senge identifies this in a business context:

The reactive stance in management is evident in the fixation on problem-solving. … But problem-solving is fundamentally different from creating. The problem solver tries to make something go away. A creator tries to bring something new into being.

Problem Paradigm. Observing problems through a normative lens, we listen to diagnose and solve. We observe what works, what’s wrong, and how to fix it. We expect normative ideals to precede problems that should not exist, so we listen for prescriptions.

Possibility Paradigm. Observing problems with philosophical insight, we listen for what’s missing or essential for a declared possibility. We view problems as inevitable and universal as we venture into the unknown, so we listen for possibilities.

This learning is another critical threshold that deepens awareness to cultivate the beginning of an interdependent consciousness.

6. Practicing Acceptance

The practice of acceptance unfolds from previous practices and learnings. Specifically, the focus on mindfulness allows for the rising and passing of thoughts and emotions to cultivate non-reactive awareness. As we allow emotions, we locate them in our body, feel them, and let them pass without reifying them.

You may now see how a previous practice of “resistance training” supports acceptance. Such acceptance finds us accepting self and receiving (listening for) differing points of view as valid.

We acknowledge “self” as a point of view that unifies the flow of experience into a coherent narrative (Senge).

Practice acceptance with this mantra:

I am enough.
This is enough.
This moment is enough.
I accept this moment as it is.

7. Learning Radical Openness

Here, we honor the origin of the word radical, which means “root.” We dig to the root beyond surface “maps” or “concepts” that tend to represent our experiences.

For instance, when I sit by a tree, I “know” it’s a tree because I’ve internalized the map of a tree and bring it with me. I listen through my “tree-map” filters. If I saw a mustache and beard on the tree, I’d do a double-take, as it would no longer fit my tree-map.

Our lives consist of maps for most situations we encounter in life. Until we penetrate concepts, we view life through our maps rather than directly experiencing each encounter.

Buddhist scholar Thích Nhất Hạnh considers nirvana as “the silencing of concepts.” Radical openness notices what’s between our maps and the root of our experience.

  1. Observe the layers of “concepts” that represent experiences and “beliefs” about concepts to explain reality.
  2. Observe meaning: Begin dissolving expectations, assumptions, and differences—notice unexpected questions or thoughts that emerge.
  3. Observe identity: Disclose “self” as a point of view part of a larger coherent truth.
  4. Observe what shows itself: Notice what emerges in how others bring you into being (recreate you).

Wholeness: Embody the Field to Dissolve the Fragmented Self

Developing intention and cultivating openness allows for interdependent awareness that embodies the field of listening. As we experience wholeness, we begin to dissolve barriers, identities, and the fragmented self. We witness all forms and dissolve binary thoughts into unfolding wholes.

  • Each discovery unfolds into greater meaning.
  • Each fragment unfolds into a larger whole.
  • Each interpretation unfolds into deeper understanding.
  • Each fact unfolds into a coherent truth.

I begin to see parts of you in me and parts of me in you, emerging as common humanity.

A practice and learning support this state: 8) learning to “be with” possibility and 9) practicing granting being.

8. Learning to “Be With” Possibility

The idea of being with possibility is cultivated by every previous learning and practice.

Possibility is not a goal, agenda, or intention. It is a space of freedom, a field of potential and openness where anything can surface, be witnessed, and be heard. The test involves our ability to be with what arises, stay with it, and to sustain possibility.

We can now “be with” what we do not understand or what we do not want to hear. We can stay with things to see through them. We can be with others’ views, concerns, and commitments as they hold them. We can be with another’s views as valid and other beings as legitimate. We navigate life differently:

  • The experience of empty attention cultivates non-reactive awareness;
  • With clear perception we view unified coherence; and
  • Direct presence experiences reality as holons: simultaneously, parts are both wholes unto themselves and unfold into larger wholes.

Our listening becomes the space for others to sort themselves out in language.

9. Practicing Granting Being

All we want is to be heard. Any problem, conflict or emerging strife can be traced to a lack of listening. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” taught Martin Luther King Jr.

Surveys have shown that the most profound justice people seek isn’t retribution but to be fully understood and to be heard. In this space, wholeness shows up as:

  1. Being gotten. We begin to receive and accept all points of view to embody a fuller view or coherent truth. People now sense they’ve been heard—that we get them—viscerally, beyond any forms, labels, or concepts.
  2. Granting being. In allowing to be, we embody what we can acknowledge. Here, we connect with the generative power of listening and begin to see that listening is decisive and shapes what comes to be in our presence.

We recreate all views that come into presence as revealing and coming from our field of listening. We can be here with another, exactly as they are—nothing added or taken away from their experience.

Learning and Unlearning

Many of these learnings and practices are quite involved. They often require unlearning at the level of our identity — our assumptions and beliefs about ourselves, others or reality. The journey to expanding listening is like climbing a mountain with no top. Getting used to the climb becomes the aim.

I hold these as developmental and circular—not linear and sequential—areas to explore. However, the order laid out in this blog offers supportive conditions that cultivate subsequent learnings and practices that can unfold naturally.

One tip might be to take on a practice or learning and test it out. Live with it a while. Marry it with a breathing practice and in time you may find that you’ve come to practice all of them. The interdependent nature of the whole field is more like a hologram; anywhere you enter reveals the whole.

Still, I’ve discovered that once you expand awareness, circling back can offer greater depth. Few programs offer this level of immersion and depth. We have developed one, specifically for experienced coaches. Perhaps it is right for you.

Learn about our Listening Certificate

tony-zampella-headshot Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, learning professionals and business executives. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, his work develops mindsets for growing a culture of servant leaders.

His focus includes ontological inquiry, into the nature of being; Integral theory to
include Eastern wisdom and practice with Western learning and business models;
and, Zen Buddhism to sustain contemplative practice.


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