Synergos Senior Fellows in conversation in South Africa

Video: Listening

An essential leadership skill

Listening is an essential skill for all leaders, especially bridging leaders.

Synergos’ Ferne Mele outlines the four levels of listening framework developed by Otto Scharmer of MIT and the Presencing Institute and offers suggestions on how to become a better listener.


Listening. We do it all day long. But do we do it well?

Can we learn to improve our listening - to understand others better, connect more deeply, and come to a shared understanding of how to create a better world.

Hello, I’m Ferne Mele of Synergos, a global organization that helps solve complex issues around the world by advancing bridging leadership that builds trust and collective action. We believe that this kind of leadership is key to creating a more just and regenerative world.

Listening is an essential skill for all leaders, especially bridging leaders.

Otto Scharmer of MIT and the Presencing Institute has said that - and I quote - “Very often at the source of leadership failures is a lack of listening, a disconnect on what’s really going on right now.”

Otto’s right, and he’s developed a framework called the four levels of listening to help us become better listeners.

Synergos uses this framework in our work building collaborations around the world. Let’s lay them out.

The first level is the most superficial. It’s called downloading.

Downloading is when we listen, only to reconfirm what we already think we know.

Everyone does this from time to time, but for bridging leaders, it’s not good enough. We can do better.

The next level is factual listening. This is listening with a focus on information that conflicts with what we already know or believe.

Factual listening can be powerful if we use it with the intention of learning or testing our assumptions. That’s listening with an open mind.

Great scientists, for example, use factual listening to tremendous effect.

However, this type of listening can be problematic if we only do it with the intent to refute or debate.

The third level is empathic listening - striving to see the world through the eyes of another. This is listening with an open heart. It requires us to be present. It helps us connect to what others are feeling.

If we think of professions, caregivers are often skilled in this form of listening.

At Synergos, we encourage empathic listening in many of our inner work practices.

The deepest level of listening is creative listening, sometimes called generative listening.

This is listening with a focus not just on the other person as they are now, but on their potential and the possibilities you can create with them.

Great coaches are often skilled in this type of listening.

It is listening with an open will - looking to an emerging future.

Due to its power for creating change, bridging leaders should master creative listening - though they must also be skilled at factual and empathic listening.

How can we improve our listening skills?

A basic step is being aware of your level of listening in the moment. Is your attention only on yourself? At best you’re downloading, and can do better.

Is it on the facts, in an open-minded way that tests your assumptions?

Is it mainly on the other person and their feelings?

Or are you truly present, and open to the potential of the future?

Recognize what you are doing and try to shift your focus as needed.

In general, strong listeners try to suspend assumptions, and hear both feelings and actual words. They respond in ways that deepen and build relationships. They listen for shared goals, and are imaginative about the future.

Listening is essential to collaboration - and collaboration is essential to creating the world we want.