Something We Urgently Need to Improve Upon, and One Way to Do So
We urgently need to improve our listening.
Or, more precisely, at knowing how we’re listening (or not), and how to shift listening “channels.”
Sure, we’re not so bad at hearing and receiving communication, taking in information, and doing the intuitive, heuristic work of interpretation.
But we rarely engage in the more fundamental work of first paying attention to how we’re listening, what our natural tendencies are, how these might be tempered for different contexts and interactions, adjusting and adapting as we go.
As I reflect on my coach training (via The Coaching Institute at Columbia Theological Seminary) and subsequent experience as a coach, it strikes me that learning a framework and set of skills focused on how to listen maybe the most valuable gift I’ve received.
A Google search will lead you to all sorts of different models for different modes, levels, or styles of listening (You may have already come across popular Person/Action/Content/Time model, for example.)
But, for me, the most helpful model is the “three channels of listening” model I learned from my TCI trainers: self-oriented listening, content-empathetic listening, and person-empathetic listening.
None of these is necessarily better than the others, but we all have tendencies towards one of these or the other, and all of them need to be effectively utilized.
- The naturally self-oriented listener tends to intuitively ask amid a conversation or encounter, what does this mean for me? What am I feeling? Where do I fit into this? What experiences have I had like this? What can I share about my life in this context? This may sound selfish, but the self-awareness is vital, and when used appropriately this channel can help us build trust and empathy.
- Those of us naturally content-empathetic listeners tend to pay attention to the “issue” being presented, are interested in complex challenge and drawn toward data and details, analyze the “what” of the interaction rather than emotions or personal experiences, and like to fix problems via a consulting or strategizing approach.
- A listener with a person-empathetic tendency will naturally focus on how the other person or group is experiencing something, how the content of what they’re communicating made (or makes) them feel, how the content intersects with their values, hopes, and identity, and what the implications might be for them moving forward. The person-empathetic channel acknowledges the messy, multifaceted, emerging systems we all experience. This last channel is the one that is most valuable for sustainable change and transformation.
Well-trained coaches learn how to shift back and forth between these channels as needed.
In order to shift, it’s important to be aware of how I’m being affected by a conversation (self-oriented), to grasp the content or issue at stake (content-empathetic), and to be sure to engage with and perhaps inquire about what the other person is experiencing (person-empathetic).
When I train facilitators for The Ministry Collaborative, we conduct an exercise that involves getting into groups, having conversations, and simply paying attention to our listening tendencies.
We do several rounds of these conversations giving people the opportunity to try to switch their own listening channels and see what new insights emerge. This is frequently an “a-ha!” moment for people because most of us have never noticed our natural tendencies and how much it plays a role in our communications and relationships, not just in a coaching context, but in family, friendships, work, and beyond.
Which channel do you tend toward? How might you better diversify your use of these channels?
It is profoundly interesting to me that the voice of God, frequently via the prophets, and indeed from the mouth of Jesus when introducing a teaching, frequently starts with something like, “now listen!” or “hear this!” or “listen to him!”
Discerning my own listening tendencies and utilizing more listening channels has opened many such passages for me in radically new ways by which I can see their multiple levels, angles, perspectives, and functions.
Our digital age of networked individualism seems to have presented us with more words but less wisdom, more information but less formation, more “likes” but less listening.
In that context, there may be few more prophetic ways forward than to offer deep, transformative listening.
So, how do you listen?
How can we be more adept and versatile in our listening approach?
How will we undertake this holy work, as Douglas Steere puts it, “to listen another’s soul into life”?
The Ministry Collaborative