The Gifts and Challenges of Generative Listening

The first time I was listened to, really listened to, was a revelation. It happened in my mid-twenties while talking with Grace, a close colleague and friend. She did something deceptively simple. She paid attention. She restated back to me what she understood me to say. Then she asked a question to increase her understanding of what I was trying to convey. 

Hearing my words reflected back to me was revelatory. I felt seen and understood in a way I had never experienced. Her question increased my understanding of what I was intending to express. Her listening helped me listen more deeply to myself.

Grace had been trained as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker so she knew all the listening techniques; silence, paraphrasing, reflecting feelings, and asking open-ended questions. More important than any of the techniques was her presence. She was not absorbed in her own thoughts, just intent on understanding me. I don’t think we need to be trained as therapists to be good listeners. We can be taught the behaviors, for sure. But our intention and presence are what make the difference.

To this day I remain grateful to Grace for showing me what it means to listen to another person and the impact that it can have on the listener, the speaker, and the quality of their relationship.

Although I did not have the language at the time, she had introduced me to what some now refer to as “generative listening.” It is the kind of listening that is so open and so present that something new can be born. A new idea, a new depth of a relationship, a new sense of connection to a greater reality. 

There are three other types of listening that are probably more familiar to you. Otto Scharmer refers to these as downloading, factual listening, and empathic listening.

Here is my take on these modes of listening and the role they play in leading.

  1. Downloading. This is the most common form of listening. People listen for details confirming what they already believe or know. This is also known as confirmation bias. I think of this as the hamster wheel of the Default Mode Network. While supposedly listening, your brain gets busy making sure no information challenges your beliefs or sense of identity, i.e., your sense of safety. Listening in this way means you will likely be on the defensive and learn nothing new. In other words, you will hang onto the status quo of your current thinking.
  2. Factual Listening. This form of listening is less self-referential and opens doors to taking in and considering information that might challenge your thinking. This might result in cognitive dissonance—the discomfort of holding apparently conflicting views simultaneously. The practice here is to stay mindful of your internal reactions via the Central Executive Network so you can manage the impulse to discount the views of others and choose to open your mind to new ways of perceiving and thinking.
  3. Empathic Listening. This is a rarer form of listening. In it, we work to perceive a situation through the eyes of another and sense their emotions about it. It takes practice to listen to another and to your internal sense of what’s going on for them. Listening in this manner—using the Social Circuits throughout the body and brain—opens your heart and connects you to others in deeper ways. It also can trigger the release of oxytocin in you and others and build trust between you psychologically and physiologically. When people feel connected to you, fear and defensiveness decrease and open space for creativity and commitment.
  4. Generative Listening. This is an even rarer form of listening and yet sorely needed in our world, which is full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. This form of listening includes factual and empathic listening while also tuning into the social field in which people are interacting. The social field includes at least four important elements to attend to: (1) the quality of the relationships among people; (2) the culture of the organization or community in which people are interacting; (3) the context of the community or organization (its history along with current social, economic, and political pressures); and (4) everybody’s highest (usually implicit) aspirations for the future. It’s important to ask whether the social field is encouraging or discouraging people to listen generatively and work together to create desirable results.

We have come to a time in human history when we need to evolve our ability to listen generatively to one another across multiple boundaries, so we can hear—beyond words and positions, beyond fears and identities—the essence of what each of us wants for this world. 

One helpful mental training tool is mindfulness meditation. We know from the work of Richard J. Davidson, at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that long-time meditators create enduring transformations in their brains. For example, their brains have greater amplitudes of gamma oscillations than others. Gamma waves are the fastest brain waves and occur during moments when its different regions fire in harmony. Ordinarily, these waves last no longer than a fifth of a second, during, for example, a creative insight. They last a full minute in the yogis involved in Davidson’s research and continue even when the meditators are asleep.

According to Richardson and Daniel Goleman, “The yogis themselves have described it as a spaciousness and vastness in their experience, as if all their senses were wide open to the full, rich panorama of experience.”

Being wide open to the full, rich panorama of experience sounds like generative listening to me. Could meditation and gamma waves play an important role in developing our ability to listen generatively? We are not all going to become yogis, but we might strengthen our ability to listen generatively by adopting some of their practices.

My ability to listen this way seems to increase with the contemplative practices of Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing, Moshe Feldenkrais’ Awareness Through Movement Lessons, and mindfulness meditation. I am grateful to Russell Delman and the Embodied Life Program for deepening my practice in all three. 

How do you or might you increase your ability to listen generatively?

I look forward to hearing from you,



*Goleman, D. & Davison, R.J., Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. Avery, 2017, p. 232.

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