By MJ Ryan
Sitting here thinking about the Black Lives Matter movement and what those of us who are white can do to be better allies, one skill seems like a pre-requisite: listening. It’s not all we need to do, we need to take action, to use our white privilege to make change. But listening is crucial so that we take informed action. A very particular kind of listening, which requires receptivity, defenselessness, and a willingness to learn.
That’s why an excerpt a friend sent me last week from Theory U by MIT professor Otto Scharmer caught my attention. He says after decades of working with groups, he’s identified four types of listening:
“Ya, I know that already,” which we do “to reconfirm habitual judgments.” We do this all the time—yes, we agree, so hurrah for us. Nothing new is learned, no discomfort is created, we are justified in our world view. I find myself doing a lot of this type of listening as a way to feel connected to like-minded others. In these chaotic and confusing times, a confirmation of my world view feels validating. But what good does it do otherwise?
“Ooh, look at that!,” which is what Scharmer calls “object-focused listening…paying attention to factual and to the novel or disconfirming data. In this type of listening you pay attention to what differs from what you already know.” Science is a discipline that uses this type of listening, he says.
The third is “Oh, yes, I know how you feel,” which he calls “empathic listening.” I have problems with this phrasing. I don’t think it shouldn’t be “Oh, yes, I know how you feel,” because we can’t actually know how the other person feels, especially experiences like racism which as white people we don’t undergo. When we say things that, we minimize the other person’s pain. It’s an unconscious attempt to categorize it, to box it in, to control it. Rather, what I think Scharmer is trying to get at here is the listening of pure receptivity, what I call deep listening. We let go of planning what to say next, let go of thinking about our to-do list, texts coming in on our phone, our ideas of what the other person should be doing, how we could help them, let go of everything except receiving the other person. It’s a simple, but not easy, profound practice.
“As long as we operate from the first two types of listening,” Scharmer writes, “our listening originates from within the boundaries of our own mental-cognitive organization. But when we listen empathically, our perception shifts from our own organization into the field, to the other, to the place from which the other person is speaking. When moving into that mode of listening we…connecting directly, heart to heart, to the other person. If that happens, we feel a profound switch; we forget about our own agenda and begin to see how the world unfolds through someone else’s eyes.”
“I can’t express what I experience in words,” is the fourth level of listening, what Scharmer calls “generative listening, or listening from the emerging field of the future.” He describes it like this: “My whole being has slowed down. I feel more quiet, present and more my real self. I am connected to something larger than myself…. This level of listening requires us to access our open heart and open will — our capacity to connect to the highest future possibility that wants to emerge. On this level our work focuses on getting our (old) self out of the way in order to open a space, a clearing that allows for a different sense of presence to manifest….You know that you have been operating on the fourth level when you realize that, at the end of the conversation, you are no longer the same person you were when you started the conversation. You have gone through a subtle but profound change. You have connected to a deeper source — to the source of who you really are and to a sense of why you are here.”
The fourth level may sound very New Agey but if you have ever experienced it, you will recognize what Scharmer is saying. I don’t know exactly why it happens but I do know that the more you practice the deep listening of level three, the more you create the conditions for the fourth to occur.
Even if you never experience the fourth type of listening, our times are calling on white people to do a lot of level two and three. To listen to facts that disrupt our comfortable sense of reality: no, the world doesn’t work for everyone the way it works for you. And to listen with our hearts to the rage, pain, and lived experience of our black and brown brothers and sisters without deflecting, justifying, or minimizing. Listen to the facts. Listen to the pain. Listen our way to the future.