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.
- Observe the layers of “concepts” that represent experiences and “beliefs” about concepts to explain reality.
- Observe meaning: Begin dissolving expectations, assumptions, and differences—notice unexpected questions or thoughts that emerge.
- Observe identity: Disclose “self” as a point of view part of a larger coherent truth.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.
As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.