ITL #256 Ways of listening: how we pay attention shapes what emerges

2 years, 6 months ago


Insight comes from listening in a way that bridges the gap between our own mindset and that of others. By Monique Hendriks.

In a world of fake news and polarized discussions, people are searching for the truth in every which way they can. But is there such a thing as the truth? And what are undisputable facts in a world where you can twist around any kind of information; "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."  

Discussions get fiercer, arguments are only repeated in different ways and no one is listening or – let alone – being persuaded in taking a different point of view anymore. I firmly believe that investing in more true, real and effective dialogue is essential for the future of a healthy and harmonious society.  

First of all, a dialogue needs people who are prepared to listen to others. Otto Scharmer researched the behavior of people when they are listening and how they frame their opinions when they are in a discussion. He distinguishes four levels of listening and framing; downloading, factual, empathic and generative ways of listening.

Downloading means listening to confirm the facts we already know, the opinions we already have and the thoughts that are already ours. Downloading is a way to defend yourself, to protect your opinions: Donald Trump’s way of listening is downloading. And the frames he uses when expressing himself don’t invite people to form new opinions: things are good or bad, right or wrong.

A factual way of listening is when you listen with a focus on new information, on things we didn’t yet know. A part of factual listening is aimed at disputing those facts again. An example of a factual listener is Geerd Wilders (the right wing politician). Wilders observes what triggers reactions and uses frames accordingly. He uses frames in terms of agree and disagree or true and false, winning or losing.  

Open minded

The third way of listening is empathic listening. Listening to relate to the other point of view, without having prejudices. It requires an open mind. Frames are mostly posed as questions. Barack Obama is an example of a master of empathic listening and expressing himself in frames of questions.  

The fourth way of listening is generative listening. It is a form of listening aimed to co-create with others. It requires full attention without using your own frames. It creates a situation with complete openness, where assumptions are merely reframed to transform perceptions.

In this situation new ideas can evolve. In-depth knowledge and skills in listening and recognition of frames would help enormously in improving dialogues and would bring a far better appraisal and validation of information.

This however isn’t a plea for soft dialogue as a solution to all our social problems. When problems and discussions are getting fiercer and arguments are only repeated, something else may be happening as well.

We might have ignored the sound of minorities or a long-lasting problem that has been slumbering below the surface for a long time. When groups of people in a community unexpectedly or repeatedly revolt, this might be the case. Or when a problem in an organization is always discussed more thoroughly in the coffee corner than in formal meetings. A good and thorough discussion where you really look for confrontation and are being placed in a situation in which you feel less comfortable, will ease tensions in the longer run.  

Hearing minorities

If you listen better, you will also hear the sound of minorities. Because if we ignore minorities, we end-up with resistance and groups in society or in an organization bailing out, turning their backs. Including the wisdom of the minorities and adding it to the decisions of the majority is the basic principle of Deep Democracy and the management form of it: Co-Resolve. And this method, again, requires attention, listening skills and dialogue skills.

In a true dialogue, no one has the monopoly on the truth, those involved show respect for each other’s views, feelings and opinions. Hidden assumptions, ethics and interests will surface, new ideas can emerge.

And in order to be able to have an effective dialogue, it is important that we understand the context of our partners in the conversation and the situation. We need to be aware of the frames we and they use and the fact that we always only see parts of reality and fill in the rest.

Part of something

We need to have an understanding of the fact that we are social creatures and that we want to be part of something. We need to be part of the ‘in-crowd’, because this makes us feel comfortable and safe. So we affiliate with people that are a lot like our self and that have the same opinions.

We like to ‘bond’ with people we relate to. But we should be thinking about bridging: filling the gap between our own mindset and that of others.

But what about undisputable facts and fake news? In my opinion it is mainly news that only shows one side of a far more complex story, gives a view on a specific moment in time, or ignores feelings or the context of a group of people. And facts can very often be disputed. If we use scientific facts, in a lot of cases there will be other scientists that can show the opposite or a different angle on the same facts.

For example, a parent who refuses vaccination for his or her child will use facts and research that prove him or her right.  The opponents will use other facts and research. And in a discussion between the two groups emotions will be a very important factor. Recognition of emotions and other mechanisms is important to be able to have an effective dialogue on the subject, rather than a mere discussion. New solutions or better understanding will only then emerge.

Ask why?

My plea is for an in-depth understanding of dialogue and the mechanisms that drive people. In this world where everyone has his or her own channel through social media, it is getting more and more important to really think about why information is out there.

In former days, we had journalists to guide us through information, dialogues were neatly organized and our community was far smaller.  We are now in a different place.

People will always be somewhere at the source of information, even if artificial intelligence will spread its wings. A dialogue between two (or groups of) people will also always be important. We are already in that world and our children grow up in a world that will be even more complex. We need skills to be able to recognize and understand resistance.

Children need a complete new form of education and awareness of how facts are published and how and why people express themselves. Because the way we recognize, understand and pay attention, will in the end shape what emerges and bring new insights instead of more of the same.


‘The Art of Dialogue’ from Noelle Aarts, Hedwig te Molder & Nick Verouden

‘Theory U’, from Otto Scharmer

‘Deep Democracy’ from Jitske Verouden according to Myrna Lewis

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The Author

Monique Hendriks

Monique Hendriks holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Communications from the Economic University in Eindhoven. She is the company director of Bex*communicatie, a well-known Dutch consultancy/agency and has a wide interest in topics such as social and environmental issues, technological developments in communications and transitions and change. She is shareholder and board member of ECCO, International Communications Network. As a consultant she worked for Unilever, Rabobank, the Dutch State Department and Department of Internal and Social Affairs, Philips and various advisory boards in the Netherlands (on diversity, human rights, seniority on the workfloor and participation of women from ethnic minorities).

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