In my book Create New Futures, I reflected on four levels of listening. In this article, for the first time I am introducing a fifth dimension and describing how you can engage its transformative power.
I first discovered the levels of listening in my coaching and consulting work, which was concurrent with my development work. My earlier fascination with learning processes emerged when I was trained as a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. There are two kinds of pilots: the naturals, or what I called the “gut” pilots, and the “head” pilots for whom the sense of flight is not natural or intuitive. The fact that I was not a natural pilot became obvious quickly. While I did not know if I could become a head pilot, I knew that to succeed, I had to find a different path. What did become natural and worked for me was improving by learning: although I started the training at the bottom of my class, by the time we graduated, I was second in my class.
What enabled this performance was my fascination with the learning process. I became obsessed with discovering why some people learn quickly and others don’t, and what I could do to accelerate my learning.
This early fascination and the insights that found me, such as the four memories, stimulated my study of adult learning and its application to both individual and group learning processes. These inquiries shaped how I developed the art of choreographing transformational experiences. The levels of listening and their practices emerged in this crucible as I created and facilitated differentiated *wow* experiences for executive teams that aspire to deliver breakthrough results by developing radically higher levels of performance.
To put listening level 5 into context, let’s reflect on listening levels one through four.
At listening level one (L1), you pay little attention to the words you hear in a given conversation in which you are a participant. Rather than listening deeply, you are merely in the peripheral hearing mode. For example, during a conference call you engage in tasks that require the verbal zone in your brain, such as reading and/or writing an email. The conference call recedes to the background. Although you hear the words, you are not engaged in deciphering their meaning or context. The conference call comes to the foreground only when your name is mentioned, at which point you immediately shift into level two listening. At L1, you cannot make a meaningful contribution because you are mentally (and perhaps physically) absent from the conversation.
At listening level two (L2), you are in the conversation to advance your agenda and achieve your own objectives. You think about what people are saying so you can decipher their meaning, understand the context, and judge the importance of their positions or perspectives relative to their implications for you. For example, this listening mode is activated during a debate, when winning requires you to decipher the other side’s logic and devise persuasive counterpoints. The L2 listening dynamic occurs as you formulate your next move, framing possible responses and questions. Attorneys cross-examining witnesses in court who ask only questions for which they already know the answers is another example. L2 is targeted listening that helps you steer the discussion and negotiate the outcomes you desire.
Listening level three (L3) brings a new depth to the interaction. You go beyond merely listening to ascertain the meaning of words as well as to recognize and filter the emotions and feelings behind them. Whereas at L1 you hear the words but are absent from the conversation and at L2 you are anchored in yourself and your perspective as you decipher the meanings and implications for you, at L3 you shift to a more a centered view between you and the other person. For example, when you mentor someone, the L3 listening dynamic is activated as you try to understand the other person’s perspective and needs. You listen to others’ tones so you can feel their emotions and appreciate their underlying concerns, desires, and needs. True listening and emotional connection begin at the third dimension of the listening process.
Listening level four (L4) is “whole person” listening. It embodies the saying “I am all ears” because you listen to the other person with every cell in your body. Your center of gravity shifts from the middle to fully encompassing the other person. This quality of listening is an art, a skill, and a discipline that can cause profound healing. The experience of feeling like you have been fully witnessed and heard, free of any agenda or judgement, can be a transformative process for each person in the conversation.
Listening in business settings
In our leadership and strategy events over the last two decades, I’ve introduced and explained the above four levels of listening. There are two reasons why I’ve never gone beyond L4 to the next dimensions of listening in these settings.
First, perhaps 5% of leaders find the facility to intentionally step into L4 listening. Most business environments are dynamic, demanding time and attention that physiologically may overwhelm people. Rivalrous dynamics move rapidly, and condition people to operate in a reactive mode. Thus, when overtaxed, their brains are saturated with cortisol, the body’s alarm system and stress hormone, which makes L4 listening difficult or impossible.
L4 listening requires an intentional effort to slow down. Doing so is difficult: people who believe they must rush around fail to realize that to speed up productively, they must slow down. I’ve witnessed and experienced the outcomes of this misconception hundreds of times. Slowing down hastens understanding and appreciation, which enables people to accelerate agreement and alignment. In our work with executive teams, we choreograph and facilitate experiences that force members to slow down. They discover that by entering deep L4 conversations, they are able to access a potent learning zone in which creative ideas and innovative solutions emerge.
The 5% of leaders who adopt L4 listening as a practice and view it as a muscle that must be exercised regularly discover that choosing to create this learning space can result in transformative experiences for themselves and for the other people involved.
The second reason I do not go beyond level 4 in business settings is that I’ve observed that few people are prepared to tolerate the more complex frameworks that define higher levels.
Those who become involved in deeper transformation work discover three additional dimensions of listening that facilitate and open them to profound realizations. We describe the first of these levels here.
Listening level 5 (L5) builds on the L4 practice. The awareness of an additional listening presence is triggered when you enter into L4’s “whole person” state. It is as though while listening to the other person, you concurrently step back inside yourself to experience or observe that interaction and how it evolves in you. You focus on how you listen, noticing the transformative outcomes of that intense attention. And there is an added presence that accompanies L5 listening.
The shift to L5 can arise, for example, when you are so captivated by a deeply moving piece of music that you become one with it. Entering into this altered state awakens an additional self-witnessing presence. That’s the emergent property of L5 listening. A similar experience can occur when you listen to an inspirational teacher: if you allow his/her teaching to emerge in you as it is transmitted, this process and flow can re-wire your mind and re-fashion your appreciation in real time, so that you both witness and experience the reconfiguration process as it develops.
In a future article, I will discuss the three natures of coherence that can arise in conversations conducted at the deeper levels of listening. I also will describe the 6th and 7th dimensions of listening, which involve subtle processes and states that seldom emerge in a business setting. More naturally, these levels belong inside a developmental and spiritual inquiry into how we can be of service to the purposes of life by becoming conduits of superior intelligence who translate insights from the realms that bless the higher human endeavor.
A special after-note:
If you have been reading my newsletters for a while, you’ve probably discerned that my consulting work with senior executive teams is nourished by a deep spiritual inquiry. I have been on this journey since the age of 21, and in other ways even earlier. At age 42, I brought my focus to leadership and strategy work with executives. This shift was both a choice and a necessity.
Years ago, I promised my wife Sara that the material needs of our family would be provided for as a natural outflow of my spiritual inquiry. At that point I felt that I had developed an indestructible core anchored in the deep belief that we — all of us on this planet — are doing more than seeking a spiritual experience. Rather, we are spirit beings pursuing the human experience for evolutionary purposes — our own and that of the universe. In actuality, the deeper transformational work arising now in humanity involves people stepping forward as agents of emerging consciousness.
I discovered that engaging in this inner work concurrently with the intensity and pressure of high-level business and strategy consulting created a triple bonus. First, it continually tested me, forcing me to go deeper in my inner quest. Second, I was able to enter rarified consulting levels that offered profoundly lucrative results, exceeding what I imagined possible, and which now render me free. Third, my consulting work has been exhilarating, as I have had opportunities to interact with and learn from special and smart leaders who continue to inspire me with their compassion, brilliance, and generosity.
For these reasons, and because of my promise to my granddaughter Talia, I feel that I am called to offer and share openly with those outside my spiritual community the insights I have gained through the deeper realizations that have nourished and powered my journey over the last 40 years.
It is possible that there is another act for me in which I delve more deeply in business and spiritual transformative journeys with new groups of multi-generational pioneers who are keen to follow such a path. I trust that if this is what the universe requires of me, those who need me will find me.
It is my experience and belief that there now are new capabilities, faculties, perceptions, and behavioral sciences and arts that are activating and coming online to help humanity emerge and transcend the predicaments of our civilizational crises. There are many of us, spread all around the planet, who have been waiting for this time, a bit like sleeping agents from the future alertly waiting for an activation signal that calls those who are ready to step into service in small and large ways. For me, that signal now beckons. I am ready for a new emergent future.
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