The GenderLab - listening as a premise of transformation (incl. 4 Levels of Listening)

“Listening is probably the most underrated leadership capacity today, but listening is really at the source of all great leadership. When we see leadership failures, and today we have many opportunities to see that, very often, at the source of these failures is a lack of listening. A lack of connecting to what is really going on in reality right now.”

- Otto Scharmer in a Video on Listening on the edX u.Lab Online cours

Transformation requires an openness to possibility and uncertainty. When we start to engage, for personal or collective purposes with who we are not (yet), but who we could eventually be, we move away from pre-determined outcomes. In that context, a good process can increase the likelihood that we find ways to stop re-enacting a reality we no longer want, for ourselves or for the collective.

So what then, makes a good process? For many of the participants in the collaboratio helvetica GenderLab, exposure to methods encouraging listening and an awareness of the quality of our presence as we listened to each other turned out to be a key element to support transformation.

In this piece, I want to introduce the theoretical background on listening, which we used in the GenderLab, and then share how we experienced it, in practice, through our 9-month journey with 20 Explorers. If you are wondering what the Gender Lab is then please read about it here.

Some theoretical background on listening

Theory U was the framework, theory and approach we chose to work with for the GenderLab that started with 20 Explorers on October 2017. The below image and text are a summary of the Theory U levels of listening, conceptualized by Otto Scharmer, which we presented at the beginning of the first GenderLab retreat.

  1. Level of Listening: Downloading
    This first level of listening is characterized by listening from our habits, from what we already know. So basically we “download” our assumptions into the present situation, hence we listen to what we already know. The result of this kind of listening is that we reconfirm our existing opinions and judgements. In general, this can be a helpful way of attending to the world outside. If you think for instance of an apple, you know from experience that it is a healthy and tasty item to eat. If you can use your previous assumptions about apples, it saves you time. You don’t need to reevaluate every single time whether an apple is healthy or potentially poisonous.

  2. Level of Listening: Factual
    When listening from level two, we are starting to open our mind. That is, we start to pay attention to what is different from how we thought it was. We start to pay attention and collect disconfirming data. This level of listening is embedded in our scientific paradigm. All good science teaches us to pay attention to disconfirming data as the source of innovation. The main driver of this kind of listening is curiosity.

  3. Level of Listening: Empathic
    Empathic listening is where we start to see the world through another person’s eyes. It is only from this level of listening that our center of attention starts to move “outside of us”. When I engage in Level 1-downloading, my center of attention is within me – I don’t notice what is going on outside. Level 2 is still centered within me, but I am starting to pay attention to what is going on outside and I notice the differences from what I assumed to be true from my own experience. When practicing Level 3-empathic listening, the center of attention is from the experience of the other person. In fact, this allows us to gather much more information about the situation than what we might think. When seeing a situation from another person’s perspective and experience, I may experience feelings and thoughts I would otherwise not have connected with. It is through experiencing those feelings and perspectives that a deeper connection can unfold, as the other person will start to feel heard, understood and seen as who he/she is.

    These first three levels of listening are well known, which doesn’t mean that we always practice them. But many theories and practices teach these three different ways of listening.

  4. Level of Listening: Generative
    This fourth level of listening is something we don’t usually find in theories and practices of listening. The key difference here is that there is something happening with the center of attention. It is no longer  located in one specific person. Rather the center, or source from where the listening happens has no specific perspective anymore. It is somewhat “between” people. Otto Scharmer says in the u.Lab course on edX that the source of listening starts to happen from the field. It is in these moments when something really new can happen, as we let go of our own sense of Self and together engage in a conversation where we let come what we don’t yet know. Here we open our will to be changed by the conversation. We start to see reality with fresh eyes and connect to an emerging future possibility.

For more information you can watch Otto Scharmer explaining the four levels of listening here.

Our version of the levels of listening by Otto Scharmer.

Our version of the levels of listening by Otto Scharmer.

Listening in practice – Experiences from the GenderLab

Level 1 - Downloading: Listening from our habit (of judgement)

If you haven’t had opportunities or reasons to investigate more about gender, you may have a less nuanced understanding of it. If you now download your existing habits of thinking (e.g. there are only two genders: male and female) into a conversation, you are going to miss out on information that is more nuanced. This will increase the chances for your conversation partner to not feel heard. Now you may start to see how quickly - and in many ways unintentionally - a situation is created that isn’t supportive of a meaningful conversation on a topic as sensitive and important as gender equality.

Similarly, you may think of a gender expert, who has invested lots of thought, energy and time in understanding gender biases and inequalities. That expert has, through training, formed an opinion about “how things are and why they are the way they are”. To a large degree, these assumptions may be, generally speaking, very true and important. However, if this expert meets a person and starts downloading these knowings onto the way they listen and curate the conversation, they similarly may find themselves in a situation where their conversation partner is not going to feel heard for their perception of truth. That, in turn, is likely to lead to defensive behaviors.

Our lab experience
Downloading, as a habitual way of listening, including its unintended negative consequences, was quite present at the beginning of our collective journey. When gender, something so close to the core of our identity, was being conversed about, it wasn’t easy to figure out how to be detached from our habits of thinking, and truly open ourselves to a different way of listening and learning from each other. The key ingredient was to build trust and safety so we could feel more comfortable in letting our walls down and embracing our vulnerability.

The main take-away from downloading - listening from our habits - is the realisation that we have a worldview, opinions, judgments and thoughts. And if we don’t pay attention and become aware of how these shape our reality, the data we collect in our listening will simply re-confirm our existing habits of relating to the world.

Level 2 - Factual Listening: from outside, noticing differing data (open mind)

The challenge with this kind of listening with regards to gender equality is the complexity of the topic as well as the subjectivity of perceptions. If you are an expert in the field, you are used to a specific kind of language and analysis that allows you to interact with people that have the same background in a meaningful way. But even if both conversation partners are experts, our theoretical, conceptual and other backgrounds differentiate, resulting in a multitude of “truths”. It is therefore likely for the conversation to turn into a debate. If both conversation partners are not attached to “being right”, but instead are open to listening to the differences between them, that debate can be fruitful. The more likely outcome, however, is that the dynamics of the debate will lead to both parties not feeling understood or heard.

From the perspective of a non-expert in the field of gender equality, being part of a debate may turn out in ways where you hold on to the facts you know and start creating a “theory” around the knowledge that you have available. Now imagine a white-male-manager who has learned to defend his point of view in a culture where debate is the most present level of listening and speaking. What is the most likely pattern of behavior this person will turn towards in a topic where feelings of insecurity are likely?

Our lab experience
It is safe to say that there was a lot of debate during the GenderLab. We were confronted with the way debate is hardwired in our culture. Also, we found that it is not that easy to move to a different way of listening when participants perceive that the content of the conversation is lacking information.

As a facilitator, I learned that a shared basis of data is crucial to facilitate the process of moving from factual listening to a more empathic listening. Additionally, because of the intensity and time-frame of the process with four multiple-day retreats, the social field started to naturally flow towards a different kind of relating to each other, partly because not doing so would have kept the group stuck. It was a very intense yet beautiful phase in which the uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity of the U-process could be experienced in a very palpable way. I think everyone involved somewhere held the question: “should I stay or would it be better to leave?”. It speaks to the group, to the cause and to the power of our collective intention that we somehow steered through this phase. This wouldn’t have been possible without a significant shift of our quality of listening.

Simply put, for highly complex social issues like gender equality, factual listening as a source of listening is simply not good enough. You may think of factual listening this way: you are not asked to let go of your assumptions of what is happening, but you are invited to “suspend” them. To loosen the grip of what you think and to attend to what is different to what you would expect, so you can be open to notice any relevant information.

Practice: a very short “how to”
Pick any literature, video, audio or other resource containing information. As you engage with it, observe your mind. Notice every time you think “that’s wrong”, “that can’t be”. As you do, try, for a moment, to “open your mind” to the possibility of there being something true about it. What data could you find that would disconfirm your judgements and opinions? This exercise is about becoming aware of (i) how our habit of judgement closes the mind, and (ii) how curiosity (what might be true about it?) can open the mind to new data and therefore to different possibilities.

Level 3 – Empathic Listening: from within, connecting emotionally

In the context of gender equality, empathic listening isn’t easy for a number of reasons. One of them is that gender is very close to the heart of our identity. As such, paradoxically, we are rather blind in understanding how our own gender identity shapes our perception of reality (which is also why gender studies are so important!). Because it is so close to our own identity, it is not that easy to “detach” ourselves from it, to see the world from another person’s perspective.

Another reason might also be the emotional depth that comes with such listening. What is important here is that each person experiences their own share of pain, sadness and other emotions, yet these cannot be compared. Rather, it is part of the beauty of life that in connecting to our own humanity, we can experience difficult emotions together.

Our lab experience
Since the beginning, there were moments of emotional connection. Every morning, after a reading, short meditation and journaling we did a check-in. A check-in is a circle-practice where each person has 2-3 minutes to speak to the question “What’s on my heart & mind right now?” (read more about this method here). This space invites us to share openly about our frustrations, learnings, thoughts and other emotions. This was initially quite challenging. With time, however, it started to become evident for everyone that this space was an opportunity to connect more deeply to the way each of us experiences the GenderLab. It became a “kit” holding us together, as a peer-learning-group, when opinions differed.

As a facilitator, I had the chance to observe many moments that, from my perspective, were very authentic moments of sharing and relating to each other. Similarly, I could also see many cases in which we failed individually to overcome our differences. But the beauty was that, as a collective, we always somehow found our way to integrate each other’s perspectives, experiences, difficulties and frustrations. At some point, while observing the group facilitate itself, I wondered: “Might this, as an expression of inclusivity and belonging, not be what we long for, beyond issues on gender? Might it be that the issues of gender equality are inviting us to discover how to practice inclusivity and respect exactly when faced with what is “the other” to me?

Connecting emotionally and understanding how things are perceived from another person's experience does not mean that we let go of our own truth. At the same time, we are always invited to expand our own notion of it. In summary, empathic listening is about opening our hearts to the depth of human experience and through that connecting with our own humanity.

Practice: a very short “how to”
When in conversation with another person, try to shift your place of attention from within you to the other. Ask yourself, “How might it feel like to be that other person? Would I think this way? Act this way?” Be wary of your own projections.

In a group-setting, you can do all or just some of the elements we used during the GenderLab: 1. A short reading of a powerful/beautiful story, 2. A short meditation and journaling 3. Each person does a “check-in” into the circle.

Level 4 - Generative Listening: from source, connecting to the future possibility wanting to emerge

In terms of gender equality there are many things that such a generative space can consist of. For the expert it may feel as if a mix of different knowings start to “fall into place”, as we see what we know in the abstract unfolding right in front of our eyes, in real time. The mix here is crucial, as we are not referring to a one-perspective kind of thing, but rather the interconnectedness of different layers of truth.

Another way to look at it is that after listening empathically to another person’s story we may ask, “What now?” A sense of potential, a threshold, seems to linger below the surface. Often, when starting to connect to these kinds of “raw knowings”, our language isn’t as accurate as we would like it to be. We can’t really express (yet) what we mean. It’s a generative and creative process. And if you’re lucky and find yourself in a generative space, people start to help each other in surfacing and crystalizing a new sense of possibility.

This kind of generative listening is one where after the conversation, something in us feels different.

Our lab experience
In all honesty, I am not sure we actually got there. There might have been moments where we were, from my perspective, close to entering such a space. In the books I’ve read so far there is this notion that this generative space cannot be created and happens when the space and people participating in it are ready. This leads necessarily to the questions: “Were we ready?”, “Was I ready?”.

I can only speak about myself, and my impression was that I have learned so much in this process through which a certain kind of threshold became more and more tangible to me but I wasn’t yet ready to meet it or cross it. I’m still inquiring into what this threshold is all about. And ever since we started the GenderLab, I am experiencing moments of insight, where I feel that a little bit more light is coming through the walls I have erected (and didn’t even know about).

If you find this language too abstract, the word “insight” may help. It just dawned on me how its meaning, “sight within”, it seems to me profoundly accurate in pointing to the mystery that Level 4 kind of listening is about? In the moments when I felt we were close to such a powerful conversation, there was an intensity in the space, a very distinctive feeling that something can or would happen if the conversation was to be continued authentically. This “something” felt loaded with deep beliefs, emotions and experiences. If that conversation were to happen, it felt as if things would never be the same again. An older reality would vanish forever, leaving space for something deeper, something unknown.

I know that for a reader who has not been part of this experience, this must be very hard to relate to, and I apologize for that. However, maybe, you find in your own memory and experience moments that in a weird way may have felt similar. These experiences have taught me a lot about the strength a truly safe container must have for such a generative conversation to happen. This container is built, in my view, through the inner state of being of the intervenors, which, in a subtle way, defines the quality of interaction between all individuals that can then move to co-create that safe space together.

A generative conversation on gender equality requires a deeply safe space where people are safe enough to express very vulnerable thoughts, emotions and experiences. The group’s capacity to recognize such a moment and to go with what is wanting to emerge may arise incidentally or may take months or even years to develop.

The only gender equality specific suggestion that comes to mind here is to be gentle, forthcoming and inviting so that together you can create a space where it’s safe to express oneself in ways that are not (yet) exactly what you are meaning.

Practice: a very short “how to”
Pay attention to little moments, where “truth” happens. These are moments after which something is, in a deeper way, different than it was before. Some of my favourite examples, are the moments before and after a first kiss with a loved one. It’s this unique presence where there is an ongoing sensing of the space, the other, oneself. The center of attention seems to have no clear gravity on a specific place, rather the focus is on the whole. Pay attention to the shortest moments like that, where your listening and your presence shifts.

The Autor:

Oswald König

Oswald König

Oswald was part of the facilitation team of the first GenderLab Cycle and has gathered within the context of euforia, Swisscom and collaboratio helvetica a broad range of experiences around social innovation, facilitation and program-design. After years of practical experience he felt the need to have the time and space to deepen his knowledge and hence is currently studying social anthropology, philosophy and sustainable development at the university of Bern. Simultaneously, he is always on the look-out for opportunities to share his skills and experiences and learn new approaches to social change (like process oriented psychology).