How to practice deep, empathic and generative listening in everyday life

When you were young and play was your main focus, you were always keen to stretch it out a little longer and even if it meant postponing your chores and ignoring your parents. In a tone of frustration, they would say:

“You’re not listening to me!”

To be honest, I do the same. I frequently ask my children to listen to me. We all want to be heard. My son replied me the other day, “Yes, mom, I did heard you”. Yet, I corrected him, saying that it’s not the same, to hear and to truly listen, to pay attention to what is being said now. My son mumbled something and eventually did as he was asked to do. But the question remained with me: How often in our lives do we really learn how to listen? What are the key opportunities for a person to practice deep listening, to get to the bottom of another persons’ needs through conversation?

We often chat, we often talk. We exchange information constantly; we notice words, body language and written communication. Do we also notice silence? Are we equipped to listen and hear the message between the spoken words? And mainly, are we able to listen to other people who represent an opposing view to ours, and understand the source of their resistance?

Listening to connect. by Zinavarta on Deviantart

Listening to connect. by Zinavarta on Deviantart

During the autumn I have been privileged to be actively involved in the U.lab course given by MIT. Together with change makers from all corners of the world we’re practicing empathy, sensing journeys, different types of dialogues and deep listening. In a nut-shell, deep listening is moving through four levels of listening: from downloading, to factual listening, to empathy and finally to the ultimate generative listening. The last one is a type of listening which emerges when participating sides are so engaged in the conversation, and staying open to let new experiences to come – that the dialogue is actually generating something new; something that is being built together.

I encountered Theory U a few years ago, and have myself been through this journey of learning and transformation several times. I teach this course every now and then, and talk to people about some relevant bits of the theory. Even my friends who shared a beer or coffee with me lately – had caught up with my enthusiasm of practicing empathic or generative listening. Every time, without exception, people state that they would like to be able to carry deep listening in different interactions. Yet every time, without exception, people admit that they find themselves quite far off from that intention, and tend to retain old habits of listening. This is an indicator that most of us are “downloading” – we “listen” but keep strongly holding on to our opinions and judgments. Or we’re listening, yet filter new ideas that are not aligned with what we know, or think we know.


by FunniestMemes

When people have those “Aha moments” about deep listening, they usually reflect back on different situations and interactions, visualizing how they could have better handled some situations with more empathic listening. This often leads to feelings of frustration or self judgement. “How could I know?” they ask. “How could I have done this better? What types of tools and practices can improve my awareness”?

I honestly can’t recall ONE meaningful lesson about deep listening being taught in the schools where I’ve studied. I can’t remember ONE significant tool or method given to me while growing up, which equipped me to handle letting go of my strong beliefs and patterns.

But there are, in fact, some simple things that we can do to bring us to that next phase of listening.

I am finding more and more of those awareness–based practices during my adult life as a result of actively searching for them. I know now that deep listening is teachable, and I know that there’s abundance of ways to cultivate it. Why, is it then, that the social system is not making the shift towards intentionally deliver those practices? Why are these practices rarely taught in schools, or conveyed through media, art, organizations, and institutions? Why do we stick to old patterns – instead of starting to listen with intention and attention?

Some ideas for practicing deep, empathic and even generative listening in everyday life:

Be present. While listening to someone else, be in the here and now. Try not to think of your busy schedule and the tasks that are piling up. If someone choses to share something with you, and you agreed to listen, honor that commitment and focus on the speaker.

Pay attention to sub-text. We often hear someone say: I’m tired/I’m busy/I’m bored. But what this person might be saying beneath the surface level is: I’m lonely/I’m scared/I’m longing for connection.

Avoid just waiting for your turn to speak while listening. It’s not a competition, nor a match. Concentrate on what the other person is talking about, not so much in what you will say in reply.

Allow silence, if needed. It is OK to remain silent, even during a dialogue. Instead of seeing silence as uncomfortable or awkward, try look at it with fresh eyes – as an empathic silence. Both sides are reflecting on what has been said. Remember that sensing the moment can be powerful, even without words.

Suspend judgements and prejudices. Yes, it can be SO difficult to put aside your own opinions while listening to someone with an entirely different world view, which might even conflict with your values. But if we remember that our goal now is not to preach, or even to educate, but just to listening – it can be very rewarding to suspend our preconception and openly listen. Who knows, we might even gain something precious.