First imperative for leading in complexity: Learn to listen

From my desk on the first floor I can just hear the muted ring of the Japanese temple bell I brought back from my trip last week. Below the sound of traffic, the lawn mowing services, the cacophony of late summer insect noises, it is there, reminding me of stillness and beauty. But to hear it, I have to listen. I have to pay attention and tune into it. It reminds me of something that’s been niggling at me for a long time.

The more I work with leaders, the more I observe how groups interact and stories work, the more I know that a key ingredient in our focus is missing.

As complexity rises, so does the anxiety about doing something, anything to try to find clarity. We try harder, seek to work faster, engage in round the clock activity. As violence escalates, people begin to speak louder and to repeat themselves. We try to boil the world down into black and white or form it into soundbites so we can comprehend it. We want our opinions and viewpoints to be known, so we broadcast over all conceivable channels. But perhaps most telling of all, we are using stories to convince, coerce and bludgeon each other.

At its very heart, perhaps the first purpose of a story is to be heard. All humans seek to make sense and meaning of the world. Our stories form the lens through which we understand our experiences and they shape the actions we take. But each of us also has a powerful need to be known and understood. We share stories to create connection and feel part of community — to find out if anyone is “in the same boat”. But the only way that works is if someone is listening.

Listening, and even more than that, witnessing is the integral capacity for leading in challenging times.

It might seem paradoxical, but when voices around you get louder, its time to get still. When everyone asks for your answer, it might be time to listen to their stories. When things seem to be pulling in different directions, its time to focus into the centre. When emotions are high, when people feel stressed, when change is upon you, listening enables people to relax enough to focus on what matters, to find trust and pull together. Listening might just be the killer app.

Here’s the rub — listening is simple, but it’s not easy. The Chinese character for listening makes this clear.  It has the elements of heart, king, ear, one thousand and more as part of its make-up. It literally depicts paying attention with the whole of yourself to someone, as if they were royalty, for as long as it takes.

To deeply listen to someone means you have to put your own story aside for the moment. You have to let judgement drop away and analysis lie still.  Your job is not to be forming what you will be saying next or how you will counter their argument, but to be of service to the teller in your listening.

Deep listening creates a resonant field where more is possible. This is the quality of witnessing. You might think of it as “with-ness-ing”.

I’ve seen it time and again, when people lean in to listen, are present with their whole body, and give their full attention to someone else, something new happens. Often the storytellers look surprised and say: “That wasn’t the story I expected to tell!’. Deep listening is an invitation for a deeper or bigger story to show up. The storyteller and the listener step into partnership, co-creating the story together. In fact, they are of service to each other, as they sit inside the story, discovering it together, at the same time.

Over the past six years or more, I’ve been working with a method called Collective Story Harvest. It is a way to become a group of story listeners and harvesters, with a simple process that helps us collectively learn from stories. As part of it, people choose one of the harvesting arcs (you might call them listening threads) — they pick a lens through which they listen to the story. These arcs change each time, according to what we want to learn about, but the one role that is always present is the role of Witness.  We’ve learned that this role creates the anchor point for the storyteller and also makes it possible for everyone to listen more deeply.  The Witness is the bridge into the collective field of story.

During our Leading Through Stories workshop in Tokyo, we used Collective Story Harvest in the afternoon. We listened to two stories, one of a local government and community project and a personal story. The personal story was a very emotional one and it became clear that the teller had decided the circle was a safe enough place to reveal a story long buried. The circle of listeners leaned in. The container their listening created was strong enough to hold the waves. It was a profound moment of collective listening, witnessing, learning and unexpected healing.

The storyteller was released from past regret in a way that opens new potential. And the wider circle experienced what it was like to hold emotion and make sense and new meaning of it. They gained emotional resilience. These are qualities much needed in our work and personal lives.

Here’s what one participant, Yoko Kawashima had to say about her experience.

Listening is both a skill and an art. And like most skills and art forms, it requires practice. The good news is there is plenty to practice on — listening to others — their needs, concerns, insights, qualities, their emotions, dreams and fears; your field or industry — the challenges, opportunities, shift points, ethics, where is the future already showing up in the present; yourself — to your deepest needs and desires, your edges, for “what is mine to do?”; the world — What is nature telling you? What is the world really asking for right now?

All of this kind of listening enables you to show up as a different kind of leader, one with their finger on the pulse of the business, but also on the heartbeat of the people. This is the kind of leader who will notice new opportunities and take people with them.

We need more leaders who are listeners.

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