Pattern #44


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Power of Listening Card - Version 1


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Power of Listening

The power of speaking is seriously undermined if no one is listening. Speakers need listeners in order for their perspectives to contribute to collective intelligence, and real listening has become rare. So promote active listening to open up hearts and minds and to evoke the wisdom of all. And listen into silence, your center, nature, group energy, and other sources of valuable insight.

Related: 5 Capacitance, 22 Enough Time, 25 Feeling Heard, 38 Multi-Modal Power, 45 Powerful Questions, 66 Well-Utilized Life Energy, 70 Working Through Feelings

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

“Why be free to speak if no one is listening?” This first sentence is adopted from a visit I made to Czechoslovakia in 1991 shortly after their revolution. The people and friends I had there were talking about how great it was having democracy at last. They said, “Everybody’s free to speak but nobody’s listening!” That was a really powerful statement for me.

The role of listening at that point became very real to me as a major function in co-intelligence, collective intelligence and wise democracy. So having freedom of speech is absolutely essential but the other half – having people who listen – is at least as important. In a group, listening is very powerful. And at the whole-society level, having leaders who clearly listen to their followers is very powerful.

From a collective intelligence perspective and from a wise democracy perspective, you are interested in accessing whatever the people want and think. To the extent it is a democracy, it is centered on “we the people” – a government of, by, and for the people. In other words, people are the source of the basic decision-making and wisdom that you’re trying to operate on together. So having people who are listening will allow other people to speak whatever they have to contribute to the larger whole. This includes information and perspectives, different ways of looking at things.

In a small group setting it is helpful to have active listeners. When you speak they are listening so well that it’s drawing you out. There is another pattern in this deck – “Feeling Heard” – that addresses this. So having people be able to feel totally open, to flow out whatever they have to offer, to relax into the conversation so that ideas can flow through them rather being stuck, blocked or pushed. This flow phenomenon happens internally as well as in the larger group. That flow can generate and call forth the wisdom of everybody in the group, and it is more like wisdom than a personal perspective that’s being pushed. So listening is a powerful catalyst.

Also there is a phenomenon I learned in doing sacred listening circles. People talk about “talking circles” and “talking sticks” adapted from the indigenous tradition of “passing the talking stick”. But at one point when I was part of a group doing this, we decided that the listening was more important than the talking, and that what is happening when somebody is talking is that they are listening into the middle of the group, into the middle of the group’s life, and channeling what comes from there. Circle process originally came from indigenous people sitting around a fire, and the fire kind of embodies the center of the group’s experience and the group’s spirit. And we began listening into that all the time, listening into that even when we were speaking, listening into that even when nobody was speaking, listening into our center which is an extension of the group’s center… We can listen into the group center by listening into our own center. It is a spiritual practice of moving beyond your ego into the group space, into the group spirit, and into the larger spirit that permeates and holds it.

So having times of silence when people just listen is a very important dimension of generating real group wisdom and collective wisdom that is useful for a wise democracy.

When I contemplate the power of listening in a group in silence or the voice within, I think of Quaker silent worship and of some meditative practices. And I wonder:  What would it be like for a whole society or a whole community to do that?  I don’t know how that would manifest, but imagine: Everyone would just stop and listen for the larger guidance that is available inside…

There are many different ways to do powerful listening. With this pattern I wanted to highlight how powerful this dynamic can be for creating the flows of information and perspective that generate wisdom.

Video Introduction (10 Min)

Examples and Resources

For me the processes that have most powerfully shown the power of listening are Dynamic Facilitation and Nonviolent Communication.

Especially in the early stages of Dynamic Facilitation, the facilitator functions as the “designated listener” (like the “designated driver” among drinking buddies), very actively listening and reflecting back to the speaker and checking with them: “Am I getting what you’re saying?” And that act manifests the kind of listening I was talking about before, the kind that opens people up.

Nonviolent Communication uses empathic listening: you’re listening in order to understand where the person’s living in the particular problem that they’re struggling with or the conflict they’re involved in. You’re trying to understand what is the deep need that is driving this person to behave in the ways that are problematic for them and/or the people around them. So as you listen in to what they are saying, you check with them: “So when X happens, you feel Y because you really need Z?” and adjust your guesses according to their responses until they feel really heard.

So both these practices of active listening involve some form of reflection – some form of communicating “Am I getting it?” in an honest attempt to find out “Is what’s in your universe the same as what’s in my universe?  Let me know.” Other approaches to active listening recommend, for example, nodding and looking at the person and other things to help them feel heard. But those are surface manifestations. The essence of real active listening is a quality of attention and having what’s going on for the other person be way, way more important than what’s going on for you personally as you listen to them. Furthermore, it’s important not to just reflect or mirror back to them exactly what they said, but to delve into the underlying meaning and energy of what they’re saying and to reflect that back to them – always as a form of checking, as a rich feedback loop to truly hear them and to help them feel truly heard.

And then there’s the Listening Project, created by Rural Southern Voice for Peace (RSVP).  It trains people to go around listening to other folks about whatever social issue their specific listening project is addressing.  My favorite story was about a white middle-class peace group that was trying to address issues with a Navy base that was stationed right near a black working-class community.  All the peace group’s flyers and promotions were doing no good. So RSVP suggested that the group do a survey going door-to-door, saying “Here’s the flyer that we’re using and people aren’t really paying attention or understanding what were trying to say, and we’re wondering if you can help us understand what’s wrong with our promotion.” And people would say, “Sure, come on in.” And they’d sit down and look over the flyer and start reading it… and then they’d say “Is this stuff really going on down there?” And they’d really start to get upset. So that listening project not only helped develop the promotion so it was better suited for the community but it also identified and inspired organizers within the community.  People were saying “This is bad! We need to really handle this pollution…” or whatever was going on at the naval base. So that’s a whole other variety of the power of listening.

There’s lots of other efforts to listen across boundaries.  For example, some people go to major demonstrations and set up “listening booths” (a.k.a. “empathy tents“) to just listen to people on both sides. And that’s a funny way of taking the energy down and increasing th humanity of everybody involved. Those are interesting explorations. And of course, as I mentioned earlier, the Quakers are good examples of listening into the silence within…