Learning to Improvise, Part 2

 In Deep Listening

As the keynote speaker for graduating classes of supervisors in the operations division at a former Fortune 100 company, I frequently presented my “Three L’s” speech.

The three “L’s” are learning, listening, and loving.

Learning is what you are doing right now as you read this blog post. I encourage you to see yourself as a lifelong learner. There is no end to learning and evolving one’s own knowledge and consciousness. I will address loving and its importance in organizational life in a later post. In this post, I emphasize the vital skill of listening and how it is essential to moving into collective virtuosity.

How can we address conflict, complex problems, and negotiations in ways that allow innovative solutions and creativity? Organizational groups often cannot communicate well across specialties because they lack a common language.  Their definitions of reality differ depending on the meaning they assign to their categories. And most importantly, they haven’t learned to listen deeply to each other.

Deep Listening is a way of life for musicians. It should be a way of life for the rest us.

Poetry Image-LARGE-300x204

COLLAGE: Music & Poetry – Cavani String Quartet with Mwatabu Okantah

Researcher Keith Sawyer says we tend to attribute group creativity to one person’s leadership or genius, when it is really the sum of the parts, through collaborative action, that creates a cohesive performance. In his research on jazz musicians and improv theater performers, Sawyer describes the phenomenon of group flow as occurring when performers are listening to each other while listening to themselves as they simultaneously play their instruments. In Paul Berliner’s book Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, he says, “the highest points of improvisation occur when group members strike a groove together.”

Group Flow: Deep Listening Through Dialog

Facilitated dialog is one means to learn deep listening because the process helps us to inquire into our internal meaning-making and requires mindfulness at the collective level.  Dialog allows us to become aware of different perspectives and to discover new ways to think.

In his facilitated dialog process, William Issacs describes the practice of suspension. The group can move into a discussion of the issues or they can choose to suspend their points of view. The process of suspension requires that people listen deeply to the conversation without making judgments about the different views being presented. The group may move back and forth between discussion and suspension for a while. Through the process, they begin to explore underlying assumptions and myths. They begin to ask questions such as, “What is the meaning of this? Where am I listening from? What am I feeling? What am I thinking? What are my impulses for action or words?”

As the dialog deepens, group members are able to detach their personal identity from the topic being discussed. They are able to sit with the tension between differing points of view without taking it personally. Awareness expands to the point in which individuals participate in the dialog and at the same time observe it as if in a theater. They become aware of how the dialogue affects others in the group. As they become aware of limiting assumptions, beliefs and social patterns, they take accountability for them.

Finally, dialogue becomes a synchronized movement of collective thinking and common meaning.

Otto Scharmer built on Isaacs’ ideas on dialog process to create his Theory U.  Scharmer describes four types of listening in Theory U: downloading, factual, empathic, and generative.

Downloading consists of every-day surface-level conversation, such as “How are you?” and “We’re having crazy weather!” Not much listening is taking place in this type of conversation, other than acknowledging the existence of each other during the conversation.

Factual listening occurs when we have a discussion about ideas. This type of discussion can turn into debate. In order to have a healthy discussion or debate, we must listen with an open mind. As we move into a deeper level of listening, we use empathy to understand the emotions of our dialog partners. Scharmer says that listening “with an open heart gives us the empathic capacity to connect directly with another person from within.” Finally, the fourth and deepest level of listening is generative; we have moved to a place beyond words in which new possibilities emerge. Scharmer says that we must listen with an open will – that the answers come from a deep place within ourselves.

Scharmer uses a powerful metaphor to explain these successive levels of listening. Imagine that you see a painter standing in front of her finished canvas. This is the level of factual listening. Now imagine that you see the same painter while she is applying paint to the canvas in the midst of her creative process. This is the level of empathic listening. Finally, imagine that you see the same painter standing in front of a blank canvas. This is the level of generative listening, or listening from the emerging future. With a blank canvas, all possibilities are present.

Practice Deep Listening

Try out this exercise: take some time to examine your levels of listening during the conversations in which you were involved for a period of time, perhaps at noon and at the end of a day.

How many conversations went deeper than downloading and factual listening? Think back on the conversations you’ve had during the period of a week. Did you engage in any generative listening?

What steps can you take to move conversations to deeper levels of listening? Remember that not all conversations need to be generative. It is sometimes appropriate to use downloading and factual listening, and it is important to discern when it is appropriate to move to deeper levels of listening.

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