This video is from a series of four sessions on Interconnected Leadership that I led for the US NGO Commission on the Status of Women in March 2020. This presentation is on Deep Listening. You can see my presentation on Presence and Connection here, Generative Conflict here, and Creating a Culture of Care and Wellbeing here.
As old structures and old ways collapse, we have entered the place of the unknown, of untold possibilities. We are in a place of deep uncertainty. We are also in a place of a lot of grief, a lot of anxiety.
As activists, leaders, space holders, and facilitators, we are called to explore how we might collectively step into this time, step into this moment with as much grace and alignment and centering as possible in order to hold space for the new possibilities that might unfold as a result of the pandemic.
Those of us who have been a part of social justice movements around the world have been critiquing many of the structures that have led us to this place. We have been critiquing many of the structures that we can see unveiled before us.
The deep inequities in our system are affecting those amongst us who are the most marginalized. We are relying on communities within our many populations who are often the worst paid, the most insecure in their jobs, and yet these are the people that are holding so many of our communities together at this time. We are also saying goodbye to people in our communities, families, friends, colleagues, without the ability to be in ritual together, without the ability to say goodbye, and we are holding all of these different emotions.
In this context, when I talk about the need for deep listening, I am talking about it at multiple layers. One is the deep listening to the place of mystery and uncertainty and possibility. The second is deep listening to our communities. The third is deep listening to those who might be closest to us in our families, our partners, maybe in our workplaces, whoever it is that is proximate to us. And then the fourth level is really listening to ourselves.
“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help [them] to empty their heart. One hour like that can bring about transformation and healing.” Thich Nhat Hanh
We live in societies and cultures where listening is very hard. In addition, as activists and advocates, we are often trying to advance a point of view, trying to advocate for a change in the system, trying to persuade people of a different way of being around a particular issue, whether it is gender based violence or economic equality or climate change. Many of us are in a place where we are often speaking out, speaking at, or engaging with people from a place of going out of ourselves. Not listening to ourselves or to others.
We are also often programmed when we are in one on one conversations to not really listen, but to try and fix, advise or find a solution. Or worse, to judge. If somebody is telling us, “Oh, I’m feeling really terrible and really sad right now”, we have a tendency to immediately jump into trying to fix the situation. “Oh, maybe if you went for a walk, you would feel better. Oh, what can I do to make you feel better? Or why are you feeling sad? This is not the time to feel sad. You should be feeling angry.”
We do the same thing to ourselves. If we are feeling sad, we will want to check out, or we will not want to sit with our grief, or we will not really want to join in the emotion that is coming through our body because it’s too painful or it’s too difficult. Sometimes we also don’t know how to be with our happiness or with our joy.
Learning to listen is one of the most fundamental building blocks of leadership. It is one of the most essential ways to learn how to be present. There are four skills or four practices around active listening or deep listening that I would like to share. I draw from my own training and practices, including mindfulness and improvisation, and my decades in social change movements.
1. Be Present
The first skill of listening is to be present. Learning to be present means knowing how to check in with your body, with your emotions, with your mind, with your energy body, with your breath.
Presence is not just being present when listening to another person. Can you listen to yourself? Can you be present for yourself? This kind of presence with yourself and others is absolutely essential for leadership, for listening, for collaboration, for creating and allowing new possibilities.
2. Don’t Negate or Dismiss Yourself or Others
The second skill is to not negate whatever it is that is going on. If you’re feeling sad, be present with your sadness, don’t immediately try to fix it. If your child comes to you and says, “Mom, mom, there’s a blue baboon sitting on the window”. Don’t respond with, “What do you mean there’s a blue baboon sitting on the window?” Be curious, “Oh, is there a baboon sitting on the window? How come? Tell me what it’s doing.”
Don’t shut people down, especially not right now.
3. Yes, And
The third skill is to move to a place of affirmation and building upon rather than contradicting and shutting down. One of the biggest lessons I learned from improv classes is to embrace the principle of “yes, and”.
For example, if someone says, “The sky is blue and it looks like it’s going to become green soon”, find a way to build on the statement rather than to contradict it. Instead of jumping in and saying, “What do you mean it’s going to become green?” You could say, “Yes, and the sky looks like it might actually start raining”, and move into a place of listening to add something, to support something. This practice allows people to feel heard and creates more possibilities.
4. Let Go Of Your Agenda – Be Open
The fourth skill is to let go of your own agenda when you’re listening to someone speak. That allows you to hear what they are saying from a place of openness and curiosity. Surrender to the flow and the energy exchange of the conversation so that you can actually jump into new possibilities.
These are the four practices of deep listening that I want to share with you today.
Try one. Notice what shifts.
Goodman, K. (2008). Improvisation for the Spirit: Live a more creative, spontaneous, and courageous life using the tools of improve comedy. Sourcebooks.