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Elevate Your Listening Skills to Empathize With Others

And master the art of being present


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Lisa Bradburn

3 years ago | 5 min read

My brain works fast. And in not-so-distant times, the processing speed got me into trouble. Apparently, at birth, I didn’t read the manual in the glove compartment and put the pedal to the metal.

When in the company of others whose internal systems may think, speak, or listen at a slower pace than my own, I was already 5 miles ahead. There was no room for me to be present or still with the person or allow myself to ‘let-go’ and simply ‘be’ with the external world.

When I started psychotherapy school two years ago, my lack of active listening boiled to the surface and became naked in daylight. I had to slow down.

One particular guy in class became hostile towards me. Those who challenge the most also teach us the most. Amen

Otto Scharmer, a Senior Lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and his team, developed the 4 Levels of Listening Model. Scharmer has written on the importance of this much under-rated skill extensively.

If you are not a good listener, there is no way that you can develop real mastery in any discipline.

Scharmer further elaborates on the necessity to deepen our listening skills:

Shifting your mode of listening is life-changing. Shifting how you listen, the way you pay attention sounds like a really small change.

But here is the thing: Changing how you listen means that you change how you experience relationships and the world. And if you change that, you change, well, everything.

My wake up call to transform listening skills happened at the perfect time. I discovered that conscious activity required me to consider what Merriam Webster defines as “to hear something with thoughtful attention: give consideration.”

Listening is, after all, the most crucial skillset when working with clients in a psychotherapeutic environment.

Test Your Listening Skills

How well do you listen? Take this abbreviated 5 question test created by Alison Davis, CEO of Davis & Co. and columnist for inc.com. Answer true or false to these statements as a quick measure of your current way of being.

1. Listening is the same as hearing.

2. Listening skills develop naturally.

3. Listening is a passive activity.

4. The person speaking is responsible for making sure his/her message is understood.

5. To be a better listener, sit up straight.


How did you fare? Here are the answers:

1. FALSE: When you hear the speaker’s voice, it doesn’t mean you’re listening. Hearing is the body’s natural response to sound. Listening involves actively gathering information to develop a clear understanding of the message.

2. TRUE and also FALSE: While it’s true, humans are born with the ability to listen — it’s how we learn to speak — practical listening skills must be carefully developed through effort and practice.

3. FALSE: Effective listening gives the body and mind a rigorous workout, causing a faster heart rate, quicker blood circulation, and a rise in the body’s temperature.

4. FALSE: The speaker and the listener share responsibility for successful communication.

5. TRUE: Whether you are sitting or standing, keep your hands open and your arms at your sides. Leaning toward the speaker demonstrates that you are interested in what the speaker is saying and helps you pay attention.

How do you master your listening skills? How can you involve new ways of responding so that the other person feels understood? Let’s return to Otto Scharmer’s 4 Levels of Listening Model.

Quote from Rumi
Quote from Rumi

Four Levels of Listening

In the change management book Theory U, Otto Scharmer encourages leaders, servants, and even every day ordinary people to break through past unproductive patterns of behavior that prevent them from empathizing with the perspectives of others.

In the 4 Levels of Listening, we are asked to listen with the intention of what life calls us to do. This is achieved by taking the time to pay close attention to ourselves, to others, and to allow space for the world to unfold around us.

To do this, we must exist in the present moment. Gestalt psychotherapy calls this state the “here and now’. And Gestalttheory.com further describes the conscious field of reality as:

Awareness comes right now. Previous happenings may be the items of current awareness, but the process of awareness (for instance, listening) is right now.

Scharmer moves us from the lowest ego-driven level and ends in a state of transcendence; beyond our highest capabilities.

  1. Downloading — Established habits form the basis for how you will respond to others and the world around you. The result is you reconfirm what you already know based on previously created opinions and judgments. This is your projection onto the world.
  2. Factual Listening — Here, you notice what is different. You possess more significant access to an open mind. The outcome is different from what you initially expected to see. There is an element of surprise. A stronger desire exists to watch what is going on in the external world.
  3. Empathic Listening — Your open heart is an organ of perception. You see the situation through the eyes of another allowing an emotional connection. In each step, you connect with the experience of another person. Cognitive psychology says listening begins to happen from the field or place from where that other person is speaking.
  4. Generative Listening — You possess the ability to connect with the open world. Let go and let come. Emerging future possibilities help you to plug into the real source of who you are and who you want to be. Watch your level of energy and self-identity shift towards who you are and who you are moving into.
  5. The hallmark of a great coach, leader, and educator is they see your emerging, tomorrow, future self and help you to connect. Consider this state as your highest future possibility, your crown of awareness, and the most significant level of mastery.

Generative Listening | Giorgia Madonno | YouTube

Otto Scharmer’s 4 Levels of Listening have left a profound impact on me. I am forever mindful to live in the present moment, whether I’m alone, in conversing with a friend, or when standing on top of a mountain and gazing upon the majestic world.

I strive to elevate into a Level 4 state of being and tap into the real source of who I am designed to be.

Today my pace is slower eliminating contentious encounters caused by a lack of being present when listening. In recognizing where you are in the 4 Levels of Listening, I hope you will be able to connect with your “tomorrow future self.”

This article was originally published by Lisa bradburn on medium.

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Lisa Bradburn

Sr Scrum Master Transitioning To Agile Coach | Heart-Centric Leader | Gestalt Psychotherapist-In-Training | Writer on Medium | Brand Ambassador Plentyworld.com for Mental Health Awareness | Editor, Being Well and Medika.Life


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