By Tony V. Zampella, designer of learning programs
Continuing our inquiry into Listening, part four of our four-part series focuses on level 4, Listening for Being. As we enter this deepest level of listening, I offer these words from Gemma Fiumara:
“One can ‘study’ philosophy with relative ease but it is more difficult to experiment in listening. It is almost as though in order to listen one had to ‘become’ different … Unless we are ready, receptive – and also, possibly, vulnerable – the experience of listening appears to be impossible. Philosophy demands our entire mind: listening our totality.”
As a recap we’ve identified these mindsets, increasing openness and adapting to change at each level. See Table C (above).
Level 1 is impulsive/Habitual. These listeners view virtue in a fixed world: everyone and everything remain permanent. Listening is to protect a fixed view.
Level 2a is Objective/Conforming. These listeners view reality through objective rules, empirical order and concrete experiences from the group. Listening is through order and evidence.
Level 2b is Objective/Expanding. We are open to knowledge beyond the empirical to allow for concepts, patterns, to expand listening from uncertainty.
Level 3 is Subjective/Empathetic. These listeners transcend and include objective knowledge to integrate and reveal subjective views.
Slowing Toward Nothing
Listening at level 4 is a journey of contradictions and paradoxes that combines open awareness with complex experiences to access emerging wholes. It begins “listening our totality” with a slow embrace of “nothing.” These listeners are practiced at letting go of perceived threats and fixed viewpoints, and dissolve impediments and differences. They arrive at, and listen from, “nothingness” through:
1. Empty attention to expand awareness.
2. Clear perception to view openly.
3. Direct experience to access wholes.
Otto Scharmer (Theory U) terms the presence and sensing at this level of listening as, “presencing.” From an Eastern perspective, presencing finds us as one or whole with our direct experience.
- First, we observe the slow dissolve of differences, judgments, or positions that conceal our blind spot (discussed below) or that separate us from others.
- Second, observing well begins to perceive reality beyond the static, objective, or subjective as calling forth wholes.
Loosely, we become radically open to the fullness each moment offers for what is already happening – already present and wanting to emerge – to be called forth in our listening. This presencing is available in all of us during those radically opened moments when music, art, or poetry transport us to another state or zone.
To achieve the possibility of openness requires slowing and dissolving.
Listening Fast. Ever notice yourself listening too fast? We race ahead in conversation and miss something. (See book, How Doctor’s Think, by Jerome Groopman, MD, details that physicians on average interrupt a patient describing symptoms within 18 seconds.)
We all listen faster than the flow of life through heuristics, or automatic listening – akin to rule-of-thumb, programmed responses from a set of inputs.
As soon as we hear a pattern of words, such as “drained,” or “lethargic,” and “sullen,” we might view a friend as sad or even depressed. Sad is “not happy,” so now we stop listening and start acting. With open heart and closed ears, we attempt to bring joy to another, lift them up, take their mind off of whatever, and to find a way to generate happiness.
Dissolving vs. Defining Words. Deeper listening finds us moving beyond definitions to witness meaning. We might experience another’s loss, an unsettling discovery, disillusionment, or perhaps a sign of disconnect or imbalance of purpose that provokes dread.
We miss this “emerging whole” experience when fixed on sad, defined, as “not happy.” Or by stringing defined words together to fix worlds that give us permission to stop listening. Heuristic patterns lead to answers, usually the first answer. Conversely, as soon as we are triggered, or threatened, we can also stop listening. In each case, words govern rather than reveal our worlds.
Our Deeper Work. And this brings us back to where we began our four-part series, The Commitment of Listening: To be with another person and get their world as they reveal it. To offer this listening to another, absent any judgment, position or viewpoint, is both precious and rare. This is level 4: Listening for being.
Fast listening seems productive today, with our misplaced emphasis on multitasking. We are programmed to listen fast, get what we need (level 2a), see what we can do (level 2b), or hear the concern (level 3) and then get to work.
But what if listening is our work?
Really?!? What if everything we need – that we’ll ever want – is already within us, fully, and can emerge in the space between you and me? What if that space is a clearing for all of life to show up in (as Heidegger posits). What if we are co-creators who engender an enfolding and unfolding, reality, that if tapped and cultivated can reveal itself in part or fully?
This kind of listening requires presencing wholes.
Level 4: Listening for (Whole) Being
Level 4 listening, is rarely present in business and non-existent in politics (see Tabel C). If level 1 is habitual, level 2 listens through empirical knowledge and level 3 including subjective experiences and multiple viewpoints, then level 4 honors wholes that grant being. (See Table B)
According to researcher Otto Scharmer this evolution of listening is a journey from “letting the data talk to you – from the exterior realm (third-person view) to the more subtle levels of human experience (first-person views); the impact of the deeper levels of listening function like a welding flame on the process of social creation. They can melt the walls of habitual interaction that keep us separate from the world, from one another, and from ourselves.”
Letting Go. Expanding Otto’s thoughts, this unfolding expands our capacity to dissolve fixed patterns at each level and lead to greater levels of openness and change (Table B): From dissolving beliefs at Level 1, letting go of concrete evidence as reality at Level 2a, to letting go of knowledge as access to reality at Level 2b.
While level 3 includes the importance of inner knowledge, experiences, and multiple views, expanding beyond level 3 requires both appreciating and dissolving those differences into a larger whole.
As we let go, we open up to letting come.
Meaning-Making. Emerging from level 3 listening, a new dynamic emerges: listeners now begin to free themselves of words as definitions, and tune into the rich connective tissue from which words arise.
Listening to deeper meaning-making – contextual-thinking, perspective-taking, seeking, sensing, and witnessing – finds us paying attention to and aware of the meaning that connects self and other. We define words, but meaning arises from the interactions of worlds between our deepest cares, and our experiences.
This unfolds a layer of authenticity: we can now access our own blind spot per Otto Scharmer – our source and quality of our awareness that manifests in action.
Dimensions at Level 4 Listening
From this deep attention and awareness, we realize that we alone do not “make things happen” but rather participate in ways that reveal and realize what is already-always-available wanting to happen. The creativity in the universe emerges through our being first for us to receive, and then to listen to others.
A – Paradox of Wholes: Level 4 listeners honor different views while dissolving differences between our views. That paradox is just the kind embraced at level 4. Paradoxes transcend and hold tensions rather than resolve problems. Educator and thinker, Parker Palmer affirms, “Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”
Level 4 listeners create spaces for sorting out meaning, to expand listening in others, and for ideas to emerge from deeper purpose and care. We honor past generations of ancestry as connected to hidden potential.
We see our thoughts about technology, control, and nature manifesting in today’s angst over climate change, and in the very solutions proposed that will lead us back into the mess. We understand that cause and effect are not always related in time and space. We see the possibility of both/and options rather than react to either/or choices.
We listen from a deeper understanding – subtle nuances “already happening” that come to us offering insight beyond discrete events – and connected to an emerging whole. As Warren Buffet ponders “Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone else planted a tree long ago.”
B – Participate to access Wholes: In this way, physicist David Bohm, believed that the alternative way toward understanding any whole arises through participation rather than abstraction. He speaks to a “different kind of consciousness that is possible for humans, a ‘participatory consciousness.’” Entering dialogue, “each person is participating, is partaking of the whole meaning of the group and also taking part in it.”
Scharmer points to this kind of ‘”participatory consciousness” as “akin to what musicians experience when individual players can listen to the whole, and simultaneously attune their own instrument to an emerging pattern they are able to co-create something new together.”
This is a critical limitation in conventional education, where learning often involves grasping abstraction through new skills, knowledge, and concepts without the practices and participation to access the deeper connections, meaning-making, and understanding required to embody concepts.
C – Being Whole: In participatory consciousness we see our whole being disclosed in our participation. Who we are is laid bare before us and revealed through others. We honor structure, process, and content as inseparable, stemming from our awareness.
Again, Parker Palmer ponders, “We can put the chairs in a circle, but as long as they are occupied by people who have an inner hierarchy, the circle itself will have a divided life, one more form of ‘living within the lie‘: a false community.”
For most, seeing anything “false” is immediately denied or justified, rather than embraced as leading to a new, emerging whole. When we deny or justify, we embrace resistance over receiving.
D – Be-With Resistance: Resistance is the primary impediment to being whole and maintains fragmentation. Often we first feel resistance. There are issues we dodge and do not want others to share with us. There are concerns we avoid addressing because of anticipated resistance (disagreement, confrontation, opposition, or upset). The clever among us can resist the unpleasant by being agreeable.
In any case, any resistance (to ourselves, others, or situations) freezes those issues, and any reminder of those issues, in place. Frozen issues remain incomplete, unexpressed, or stuck, which constrains our view and participation in reality.
When engaging resistance, if we cultivate and bring “nothingness” (empty awareness, clear perception, and direct experience) to our listening of others in a conversation, we can “be with” what we do not want to hear.
Amazingly, “being with” another dissolves resistance. Dissolving resistance may not get rid of a “problem,” but it will disappear the “concern” about the problem, or a way we relate to, or hold, the problem.
E – Dissolving Concerns: Just listening to someone’s concerns about family, money, or being overwhelmed can free the speaker’s own listening up to let in something new.
Dissolving resistance and disappearing concerns generates a clearing that grants being to what is wanting to be called forth.
I offer Carl Jung’s thoughts, “What you resist, persists.” Conversely, what you can “be with,” acknowledge, and receive, can dissolve and free up what matters most, accessing our deepest care.
Individually, this might look like the constant refrain from a spouse, “you don’t understand me.” Such a refrain will persist if the listener insists otherwise (level 1), provides evidence to the contrary (level 2a), or simply agrees to disagree (level 2b).
Asking for examples begins to unfreeze any “resistance” (level 3). And, if the listener drops any positions or beliefs in their own listening this concern will disappear (level 4). Freeing our listening generates the same “freeing” in another, finding them able to reveal, express and connect newly.
F – Being Gotten: At this level, we begin to understand something fundamental about humans: All people just want to be heard – to be gotten, to be received, to be seen. People want this more than compensation, agreement, status, or even understanding. People want to know that they’ve been heard, that we get them, viscerally, and at a human level.
Becoming our commitment of listening finds us witnessing, experiencing and dissolving whatever is in the space between you and me. Remember, what we resist, persists.
Even at the macro level, resistance persists. Examine the American conversation on race. Many politicians and leaders speak at the impacted communities to stop talking about race (level 1) or provide evidence it’s not a real or important issue (level 2a) or offer knowledge that it’s getting better (2b).
The best among us, Barack Obama, lamented after the Dallas shooting of Police officers that we are talking past each other and not talking to each other (level 3.)
What is missing, however, is that no one is saying, “we need to listen to each other.” How can we know what it is to be Black in America if we do not first listen to those experiences?
The issues of race will persist until the communities impacted feel they’ve been heard. And this listening, in this way, requires much growth and openness from many who believe speaking and knowing hold weight to win a debate or to dominate a discussion.
Until we can listen to those impacted and bring “nothing” (drop assumptions, positions, and righteousness) to our listening, we will keep in place fixed and frozen resistance.
Martin Luther King (level 4 listener) understood this dynamic when he posited that a “riot is the language of the unheard.”
Becoming our Commitment to Listening
The commitment behind this kind of listening is emerging. We cannot know it through study, nor accomplish it through acquiring skills alone. We must become this commitment to receiving others. Absent such a commitment of listening to “get” another’s communication, people will keep speaking, often in passive-aggressive ways, through sarcasm, or through more aggressive means.
People just want to be heard. Often, to be heard humans — individually or collectively — will resort to more drastic measures.
Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vendor, did just that. Taking a stand on discrimination, he set himself on fire, an expression that helped to launch the Arab Spring.
I assert that ALL of the eruptions worldwide today lead back to this fundamental need to be heard. We need not agree with another person to see them as a legitimate being. This fundamental paradox is just one threshold to level 4 listening, which can relieve much suffering worldwide.
All people just want to be heard – to be gotten, received, and seen as legitimate beings. People want this more than anything.
The commitment of listening is a commitment to being with others at the cellular level. It is to connect deeply to another’s aspirations, concerns, and cares that are already present and always happening in and among each of us. Listening as a commitment is like climbing a mountain with no top, and is the fundamental practice of being more fully human.
Tony Zampella is the learning specialist at Zampella Group, which serves Learning & Development Professionals. As an instructor, researcher, and designer of learning programs and practices his work develops mindsets for creating leadership cultures.