Learning to Listen

I am learning to listen.

This lesson is coming through many forms, most recently via a lecture I attended by Otto Scharmer of MIT entitled Leadership and Mindful Transformation of Capitalism: from Ego-System to Eco-System Economies.

Otto asked the audience two core questions:

  • Where do you experience a world that is ending/dying?
  • Where do you experience a world that is beginning/waiting to be born?

In thinking about these questions, only one answer came to my mind. The world that I experience to be ending/dying is the world that believes that problems are external.

In my work with nonprofits, I have come to learn that problems are—at their core—thinking problems. This means problems must be resolved internally first, then externally. What do I mean by this?

  • Problems with the environment are, at their core, a problem about how we conceptualize our relationship to the earth.
  • Problems with poverty are, at their core, problems about how we structure our economy and how we conceptualize our relationship to fellow man.

I did not always believe this. I used to think that “poor people” needed help. To that end, I spent many years in many countries in direct service. What I have learned is that direct service is powerful (there is tremendous power in any act of service to another human being), but it isn’t enough. If the core of the problem is a thinking problem, our work must also be on a different plane.

In thinking about this new work, I am compelled to listen more deeply. But how?

Otto described four levels of listening:

  • Downloading: is taking the information you receive and applying old opinions and judgments to that information.
  • Factual listening: is taking the information we received and acknowledging any data which disconfirms what we thought we knew.
  • Empathic listening: is seeing through another person’s eyes and thereby establishing an emotional connection.
  • Generative listening: is opening our awareness to that which exists and to that which might exist. We allow our attention to connect to an emerging future, waiting for that which wants to be born.

According to Otto, as we move towards generative listening, we let go of the voices of judgment, cynicism, and fear. Instead, we move to a position of openness, engagement, and, eventually, embodiment.

While all this sounds beautiful, I have not yet answered Otto’s second question. Where do I experience a world that is beginning/waiting to be born?

I don’t know, but I’m listening.

What do you think?

For more information about Otto Scharmer and his work on Theory U, visit: http://www.presencing.com/

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