Four Types Of Listening

Otto Scharmer

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In my years of working with groups and organizations, I have identified four basic types of listening.

“Ya, I know that already.” The first type of listening is downloading: listening by reconfirming habitual judgments. When you are in a situation where everything that happens confirms what you already know, then you are listening by downloading.

“Ooh, look at that!” The second type of listening is object-focused listening: listening by 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. You attend to ideas about reality that differ from your own rather than denying them (as you do in the case of downloading). Object-focused or factual listening is the basic mode of good science. You ask questions and you carefully observe the responses that nature (data) gives to you.

“Oh, yes, I know how you feel.” The third and deeper level of listening is empathic listening. When we are engaged in real dialogue, we can, when paying attention, become aware of a profound shift in the place from which our listening originates. As long as we operate from the first two types of listening, 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 have to activate our empathy by 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. When operating in this mode, we usually feel what another person wants to say before the words take form. And then we may recognize whether a person chooses the right word or the wrong one to express something. That judgment is only possible when we have a direct sense of what someone wants to say before we analyze what she actually says. Empathic listening is a skill that can be cultivated and developed, just like any other skill in human relations. It’s a skill that requires us to activate a different source of intelligence-the intelligence of the heart.

“I can’t express what I experience in words. 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 is the fourth level of listening. It moves beyond the current field and connects to a still deeper realm of emergence. I call this level of listening generative listening, or listening from the emerging field of the future. 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. We no longer look for something outside. We no longer empathize with someone in front of us. We are in an altered state — maybe communion or grace is the word that comes closest to the texture of this experience that refuses to be dragged onto the surface of words.

You’ll notice that this fourth level of listening differs in texture and outcomes from the others. 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 — a connection that links you with a profound field of coming-into-being, with your emerging authentic Self. 

Otto Scharmer is a professor at MIT, founder of Presencing Institute, and a pioneer of GAIA University. The excerpt above is from his ground-breaking book, Theory U: Learning from the Future as it Emerges.

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to the four levels of listening? Can you share a personal story of a time you were able to activate generative listening? What helps you consciously choose your level of listening?

Add Your Reflection:

16 Previous Reflections:

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    On Sep 1, 2020 Mr. Viswanath Kumar wrote:
    the topic of conversation would have a direct impact on the type of listening. It is very rare to have the third or fourth type of listening.

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    On Jun 27, 2020 Elaine noonan wrote:
    I can relate to each levels of listening as I am aware and observe myself listening . I can tell if the speaker is wanting an interaction and engaged conversation while open to other or new ideas. Then I find myself in generative listing. I don't personally choose my level of listening it seems automatic based on the individual that I'm speaking with.

    Today I spoke with a friend I have not seen in sometime and listened to her thoughts and concerns about the Covid situation.I listen to from my heart and could tell her emotion beneath her words. This is how I responded to see about relaxing her concerns in a more objective less emotional way.

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    On Jun 24, 2020 Fred Walsh wrote:
    I enjoyed reading this topic on the 4 types of listening.

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    On Jun 24, 2020 Barbara wrote:
    I believe deep listening or generative listening happens when I am learning new information that touches my heart, head and body to act or pursue an activity.


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    On Jun 19, 2020 Gururaj M wrote:
    These patterns of listening exist almost similarly when I am going through written matter.
    The fourth type , when invoked by my total attention and attitude of pondering with all my capacities , is of great benefit when i read words from or about persons who have experienced exalted states and felt finer realities. The words would have been written to convey that finer reality. But the state can be glimpsed by the reader, if at all, only when a 'generative' immersion takes place. I read a line and stop. Try to feel what the words call up in me. Come back to the words repeatedly , sometimes over many days with a full faith that the author has touched something profound which is yet not experienced by me.
    Grateful to the author and Awakin circle for this piece which has the potential to make my listening conscious and skillful.

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    On Jun 16, 2020 Satya Haridoss wrote:
    There is a huge difference between 'hearing and listening'. Non-judgemental listening is more
    effective without any previous pre-conceived ideas and opinions. The 'fourth type of listening'
    is more ideal and beneficial for one and all.

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    On Jun 16, 2020 Patrick wrote:
    The first three use our ears and brain (mind), but I would suggest that the fourth is “heart listening”, when the mind drops or centers down into the deep of “heart” where words and explanations disappear and only divine knowledge is left. }:- a.m.

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    On Jun 16, 2020 Rommell wrote:
    I have found Focusing/Embodied Listening, as developed by Eugene Gendlin, to be a wonderful technique. The practice seems applicableto the fourth level, and when done with another person, the idea of being heard takes one to even another level. Gendlin's six steps are really a great tool!

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    On Jun 15, 2020 Gayatri Neena Nambiar wrote:
    I have been experimenting with Listening. I have observed & continue to these four levels of listening.I have discovered , first hand, is that when I m fully attentive, fully present, listening with my whole being happens.I Just listen, without uttering a word. Many a times , there is no response, or response slows down.Thers is empathy & compassion. When it doesn't , that too I notice.It has been an interesting, fun& joyful process to watch this happening! In Gratitude ! 😍🙏🎶

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    On Jun 14, 2020 David Doane wrote:
    I learned that communication is head to head, heart to heart, or soul to soul. For me, Scharmer's first two levels, downloading and object-focused listening, are head to head. I think his third level, empathic listening, is heart to heart. And the fourth level, which he calls generative listening, seems to be soul to soul. When I have enjoyed generative listening, I was very with the other in the present, paying close attention to the other and to what I was experiencing in response to the other, I was open, and the interaction was intimate for me and apparently also for the other. What helps me consciously choose my level of listening is my level of tiredness, my level of care, my level of interest, my level of trust. What also helps me is knowing that I can listen at different levels. Also, due to my desire for intimacy, I choose listening and speaking that are intimate, and I think such listening is what Scharmer calls generative listening.

    5 replies: Ambika, David, Barbara, David, Gururaj | Post Your Reply
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    On Jun 12, 2020 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    Otto Scharmer'sarticle on Four Types of Listening makes me reflect on how do I listen, what's my listening style. "Ya, I know that already." When I readsomething or listen tosomething that I already know, my curiosity level is more on the surface level. As the author writes I am listening by downloading. There is nothing new to learn. It confirms what I already know. Breaking News is mostly not really breaking news. "Ooh, look at that!". This kind of listening has wonderment, something new. It perks my years. It stirs up my curiosity. In the morning when I look out from my window, I marvel when I listen to the birds talking to each other. Though I have heard them talk before but I feel the newness in theirchirping. This happens when I read a poem. It may be a new poem or the poem I haveread before. I wonder from where does this newness emerge? The authorlabels it as Object-focusedor Factual Listening. It does sound right to me. Maybe, I missed the boat! &quo... [View Full Comment] Otto Scharmer'sarticle on Four Types of Listening makes me reflect on how do I listen, what's my listening style. "Ya, I know that already." When I readsomething or listen tosomething that I already know, my curiosity level is more on the surface level. As the author writes I am listening by downloading. There is nothing new to learn. It confirms what I already know. Breaking News is mostly not really breaking news.
    "Ooh, look at that!". This kind of listening has wonderment, something new. It perks my years. It stirs up my curiosity. In the morning when I look out from my window, I marvel when I listen to the birds talking to each other. Though I have heard them talk before but I feel the newness in theirchirping. This happens when I read a poem. It may be a new poem or the poem I haveread before. I wonder from where does this newness emerge? The authorlabels it as Object-focusedor Factual Listening. It does sound right to me. Maybe, I missed the boat!
    " Oh, yes, I know how you feel!" This is Empathic Listening. This level of listeningrequirescultivation of the intelligence of the heart. When I see an angry or hateful face or a fearful or sad face my I listen from my heart. I empathize with them. Such listening makes me understand the other person on inner and deeper level.
    " I can't expresswhat I experiencein words". The author names this kindof listening Generative Listening. This kind of listening happens to me when I am in soul-to soul relationshipor spiritual relationship. I am in a Being Zone. I feel at home. I discover my real self. The outer and the innerwalls go away. A deep sense of oneness dawns upon me. I would name it Spiritual Listening.
    My life journey has gone through different phases of my development. It is an ascending journey with some ups and downs and twist and turns. It is not a straight line. Taking time out tomeditate, introspect and reflect keeps me walking on this path.
    Namaste!
    Jagdish P Dave

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