How we listen and working with couples

A few weeks ago a colleague gave me a copy of ‘Leading from the Emerging Future’ by Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer. Their work interests me because it is an attempt to find different solutions to global and in particular economic problems. Their approach is summed up in a quote from Albert Einstein who said, ‘We cannot solve problems with the same thinking we used to create them.’ So they are trying to find ways that we can be with each other that removes ‘same thinking’ recognising that ‘same thinking’ will produce ‘same results.’
It seems to me to be a useful way of thinking about change from global to personal situations. They also suggest that it is how we are in relationships that can effect change both for ourselves and others. They offer a useful way of thinking about communication and in particular listening. In my profession a lot of emphasis is placed on helping people to communicate, to find their voice, to tell it like it is and it is my job to listen. Scharmer and Kaufer suggest that how we listen will have an impact on change, whether we just recreate more of the same or lean into an emerging future. What I liked is the way they break listening into components that just make sense.
The first is ‘Downloading’ which describes how we can bring to mind all of our existing thoughts, feelings, values and experiences whilst listening to someone else. It is a habitual behaviour and results in ‘same old, same old’ behaviours and outcomes. This type of listening originates from the centre of our habits, from what we know already from past experience. I have described this in work with couples and when they get it both people smile, not and look knowingly at each other. ‘So I am listening to my own thoughts and not to what she is saying?’ is a typical response. Downloading does not lead to change.
The second is ‘Factual’ listening which involves hearing the content of what is being said such as in a lecture, presentation and is what scientists will do. They do not hold on to existing interpretations of reality, but they let the data talk to them. They try to listen to the facts even if those facts contradict their own theories or ideas. Factual listening connects people to the actual particulars of their world.
Factual listening might lead to change.

‘Empathic’ listening is next on the list and as it suggests allows the individual to see the world from the other person’s frame of reference. This does not imply that the two agree, but that they are able to acknowledge and respect each other’s perspective. Empathic listening means seeing from the viewpoint of another stakeholder. Empathic listening is more likely to lead to some type of change.

Finally Scharmer and Kaufer describe ‘Presencing’ as a state in which we have a wide circle of attention that is more than self and more than other and is rooted in the here and now. In this state, listening originates outside the world of our preconceived notions. We feel as if we are connected to and operating from a widening surrounding sphere. We move from a sense of ego centred (self) to eco centred (self and other). Presencing has the capacity to lead to generative change, and change possibilities. It is not predictable but change is much more likely.

These concepts have an impact in work with couples who come in talking about difficulties in communication that are mostly to do with being heard and yet the urge is to talk rather than listen. Change occurs in my experience when each person begins to notice how they listen currently and in troubled relationships it is to download their own thoughts, feelings, experiences and complaints. In moving to technical listening I invite the couple just to hear the other person and to represent what they have heard without attributing meaning. For couples in trouble this can be difficult because each wants to be right and to have their rightness confirmed.

Eventually we can move on to empathic listening where I invite each person in turn to wonder what that might be like for the other person, to feel ignored or dismissed or shouted at or withdrawn or depressed and so on. If couples can move through the first two stages they will have more space for empathic listening. With coaching they can begin to see that empathy is getting inside the other person’s frame of reference rather than thinking ‘If I were you I would….’ (self centred) as opposed ‘It must be frustrating for you when I ……’ (eco centred)

Eventually couples might reach the presencing stage where they can be together and generate something different in their relationship.

I hope that this is interesting. I am mindful that many of us could benefit from thinking about how we communicate in ways that reinforce what we already believe.

christopher murray 24.10.14

This is a video of Otto Scharmer explaining his ideas including styles of listening