The Power of Generative Listening

The benefit of listening is something that every good leader will appreciate and understand; however, while many will believe they are excellent listeners, the truth […]

The benefit of listening is something that every good leader will appreciate and understand; however, while many will believe they are excellent listeners, the truth of the matter is that unless they are aware of generative listening, they could be missing out.

What is generative listening and why is it so important?

In his 2008 book ‘Theory U’, Otto Scharmer describes the distinct levels of listening that leaders will need to understand in order to help bring out the best in themselves and their workforce. Broken down to the basics, Scharmer argues that listening can be classified into four distinct categories – each of which provides a deeper level of empathy and engagement as the individual moves through them.

Generative listening is the fourth, and deepest, level of listening identified in his book. Here, the individual is able to set aside their own ego and be open to gaining a new understanding of the topic they are discussing by listening and taking onboard the attitudes and emotional responses of others to the subject in question.

It is a process described as ‘listening to the future’ and those who can master this skill are able to take onboard information during their interactions with others that can be used to develop a deeper clarity of thought and provide a better sense of how to shape change.

Generative listening is about turning words into action; it is the process of allowing our thoughts to become reality and, ultimately, it revolves around setting aside one’s own preconceptions and being fully prepared to embrace the thinking and viewpoint of others to achieve a common goal.

Shaping change through generative listening

Generative listening is an active process and is a skill that all leaders should be willing to learn. While generative listening may come naturally to some individuals more than others, leaders need to realise that a business is a group of people all coming together to achieve a unified purpose. It is therefore essential that those leading the company are able to listen effectively to those around them and use what they learn to keep everyone pulling in the same direction.

Frederic Laloux explained in his own 2014 publication ‘Reinventing Organizations’ that the purpose of a business will continually evolve over time and with it, the understanding of staff regarding their own purpose must evolve as well.

We can take, for example, the oil and gas industry. In the past, the overriding purpose of the sector was to go out and find hydrocarbons and extract them for profit. However, in today’s world, this is no longer the sole driving force of the industry; instead, a range of other considerations have now come into play, from environmental and sustainability factors to the pressures of operating in an increasingly VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world.

This demonstrates how the focus of an organisation can change over time and with it, those working in the field must change too. Speaking to the future is therefore what generative listening is all about and the savvy business leader will always be looking at new ways to preempt demand for their services in the years ahead – this is where an empathetic and prophetic ear can make all the difference.

Bringing the art of listening into skilled facilitation

It is not just in the boardroom and at an industry-wide level that generative listening can play a crucial role in organisational development, however, as the power of this process also lends itself to bringing about far-reaching cultural change at all levels of business.

When considering the impact that generative listening can have on shaping the future of an organisation, many companies will begin by bringing in an outside facilitator (such as the work we do here at Primeast) to collaborate with their directors and managers. In these cases, promoting a shared sense of purpose is one of the biggest challenges, and this is something that the process of generative listening can help bring about.

By using techniques like immersion and role-play, the facilitator can bring together individuals from different backgrounds and disciplines to learn from each other and to work closely in achieving a shared goal. By doing this, it requires those taking part in the sessions to more actively engage with their colleagues and to listen intently and with meaning.

Working together to achieve success

The task might be something as esoteric as working together to design a matchstick bridge, through to the much more important and grander topics of brainstorming a way of beating world hunger. Whatever the circumstance, it is essential that participants take onboard the need to listen and learn from their peers and external stakeholders.

It may sound simple, but developing the skill of generative listening can be as easy as asking participants to answer some straightforward questions, such as ‘why are we here?’ or ‘what will success look like?’. By encouraging individuals to share their views, it can spark inspiration in those around them and that is what lies at the heart of generative listening in practice – an ability to create something concrete from discourse.

So, next time you’re half-listening to a conversation or letting your attention wander from the person you are speaking to, remember the importance of a generative approach to listening and how by fully engaging in the moment, a skilled listener can be speaking to the future and taking the first steps in making an emerging future a reality.

Clive Wilson is an experienced senior leadership coach, speaker and facilitator at Primeast. To start a conversation about your leadership development or development challenges and opportunities for your organisation you can email him directly here.

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