How do we get better at listening?


Two people talking near a lake
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Have you ever been in a conversation where someone was only half listening? Or have you caught yourself impatiently waiting for the other person to finish so you can say your piece? Neither one is very satisfying. But actually, there’s more to it. The complex, intertwined problems we are facing can only be solved when we start to really hear one another. No one person has the answers. It’s going to take all of us. And that means listening. So how do we get better at this essential skill?


Dr. Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT and co-founder of the Presencing Institute, has identified four levels of listening.

  1. “Yeah, I know that already.” This first mode of listening is basically “downloading.” I hear only what confirms my previous judgments. Any new information is dismissed or ignored. I only hear what I already know. It’s like being in a closed room with the shades down. This is listening with the mind asleep.

  2. “Ooh, look at that!” The second level of listening is where I’m open to new or novel information. I can hear what is different from what I know. It’s like going to the window of the room and opening the shade to see what’s going on outside. This is the listening of the scientific method — I ask a question and observe the data, even (or especially) if it’s telling me something different from what I already know. This is listening with the mind awake.

  3. “Oh yes, I know how you feel.” With this level of listening, I move outside myself and listen to what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes. This is empathic listening. It’s connecting heart-to-heart. I forget about my own agenda and find myself in someone else’s story. I leave my own opinions and perceptions aside and step for a moment into someone else’s experience. I seek a deeper understanding of how they view the world and how they came to be at this point in their journey. In doing so, whole new worlds open up for me. I realize that the way I see things is only one of many ways of interpreting reality. Far from losing myself in someone else’s story, my world gets bigger, richer, deeper. I have access to more insight and different ways of seeing the world. This is listening with the heart.

  4. “I am connected to something larger than myself.” This deepest level of listening is not easy to describe in words. It’s almost more of an opening up space for what wants to emerge. It’s listening beyond yourself, beyond the person in front of you. And yet, it’s not beyond at all, but deeper, deeper than all of us. It’s that deep well from which inspiration and transformation emerge. And it changes you. Whether the conversation is with another person, with nature or with your own inner self, you connect to a deeper source — the source of who you truly are and why you’re here. This is listening with the soul.

Listening is a journey, a continuum. As we get better at it, we can easily move from one level to the next, depending on what the situation requires (and what we’re willing to put into it).


Rashmi Patel, a recently retired anesthesiologist from Perth, Australia, tells of her experience discovering the deeper levels of listening by participating in a coaching circle through the Presencing Institute.


I was invited to a gathering about 20–25 kilometers from where I live. Because I’m environmentally conscious, I suggested carpooling. So one of these ladies arrived and picked me up. I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me. She took me on the 20 minute journey to the gathering and we had the most amazing conversation in the car. So already when I arrived, we had formed a connection. I didn’t know what I was getting into or what it was about, but my friend invited me to this gathering, so I said yes. I got to go to a wonderful space in our park hills, which are very beautiful. Elaine had a lovely home and we sat outside in the bush under the gum trees with her kangaroo roaming around. I was just absorbing the ambiance and the nature, being away from the city where I live. This was a coaching circle and there is a format, a framework with five minutes for this and five minutes for that. They had somebody facilitating this process, but I didn’t know much about it. I just sort of went with the flow. It was a beautiful, sharing space of people who are genuinely, sincerely engaged. We spent two or three hours in that space. Somebody presented a case clinic — a challenge they were dealing with — and we deeply listened. So much of it was about listening. In fact, the whole process was not so much about the person telling the story, but it was learning the technique of deep listening. We created an embodied space, shifting our listening, deep listening with our minds and our hearts, being present. So that it was a very gradual, almost subtle process, shifting up together. I hardly noticed it until I went home and reflected on what happened and what was this about. Then I read and studied a little bit more about it. So this is how we created this group of people who came into that space with empathy. There was building of empathy, building of listening, being present, being connected. And there was this genuine connection. I was so amazed how we all felt it, ultimately, when we shared this. It’s really hard to tell, actually, what and how we human beings make this happen. But it is something that everyone seems to feel, even when we come online, now in virtual platforms. And with COVID, we’ve done this in global spaces as well. It’s so interesting how people connect so quickly and deeply. The first time I heard the case clinic, I was just very superficially listening to the story. I was trying to get the facts right, to understand what was happening. Because of my factual training in the medical arena, I’m always trying to tease out the symptoms and the context and so on. So I think I was very much in that mode of listening, trying to tease out what is the issue and how can we treat this? So it was a big shift in my whole way of understanding the deeper listening: To listen to the heart of the person, to the feelings, to the feeling in the body. We also later created a space where we could draw what was coming through us. This was an even more creative approach about what your body was feeling. I thought about this as well: How do you embody somebody’s story into your being? And that generates better empathy. We don’t often have those spaces of empathy at that level. Since then, when I go on walks with my friends, I’m always asking myself: “Am I listening? Am I really embodying what they’re telling me?” So it’s helped me a lot in the way I am, how I’m being with people.

What is your experience with listening? What helps you get to a place where you really hear what someone is communicating? I’d love to hear your story.


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