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Towards WE & BEYOND – Impressions from a shared journey Part XVII

So how are we doing with our dialogue skills - of which there are 6 in total? So far we have discussed holding and voicing; in this blog we will take a closer look at the next two: listening and observing.

You might wonder why listening warrants some exploration. Of course listening is a very important aspect of dialogue, right? Right. What we are concerned with is not really about listening per se, it is how we listen.

Observing might not be quite as obvious as listening though no less critical for dialogue. It is about listening with all our senses; is about how we take in, and make sense of, our environment. And it is next to what we see - what we focus on, to which direction we look, how much time we take to discover both the context and some details - also about how we understand and interpret what we see.

What does that mean?

In order to truly listen and objectively observe we need to be aware of our own lenses and filters trough which we experience the world. What we hear and what we see is influenced by the mental filters each of us has developed; these filters are the result of our experiences, our expectations, our education, our prejudices, and our understanding of what is right or wrong. As French authoress and feminist Anaïs Nin once said, “We do not see things how they are; we see things how we are.” Along similar lines you could also say, “We hear what we expect to hear.” (Bettina has once put this to the test by replying to the sometimes not-so-sincere question of “how are you” “terrible” in a very conversational tone. The person inquiring about her wellbeing commented, “Wonderful” and walked on.)

Another factor closely linked to our personal lenses is the fact that we are all creatures of habit. We all have many things we do more or less on ‘autopilot’, meaning that we do not consciously think about what or how we do them, we just do them. For example, have you left your house or flat suddenly thinking, have I locked the door? More often than not we have, we have just done it so unconsciously that we struggle to remember this particular action. Or when you drive a car, you tend not to think too much about what you need to do: switching gear, accelerating, breaking, indicating, stopping at a red traffic light, many of these things at the same time; it all has become more or less automatic. And that is a good thing. Just imagine life without such routines! Just imagine we had to understand, evaluate, assess and rethink everything every time we did it! It would cost an enormous amount of time and energy.

Thrown into a new situation our brain will search our store of experiences and knowledge for something that looks and feels similar. If something is found, it is like a little programme running in the background, generally without us being consciously aware of it; object identified, assessed, and put into the appropriate box in our mind. If we cannot put it into one of our existing boxes we might explore, experiment, try different things out, try to understand. Once we have found an answer that satisfies us, we created a new box, we developed a new routine, the experimentation and exploration tends to stop.

While filters help us deal with the onslaught of impressions and information, and routines free up energy to do and think about other things, these human tendencies also have a downside. While one side of the coin is to create efficiencies and free up resources, the other is a lack of challenging the status quo, recognizing threats, and recognizing opportunities. In a way you could say that routines put our brain into neutral, killing openness and curiosity.

It is not about stopping this, it is becoming aware of it.

In the context of innovation and sustainability we need to be open, alert, curious, imaginative and aware if we are to identify opportunities, realize possibilities and address challenges. We need to be aware of our beliefs, assumptions and habits to prevent them from making us jump to conclusions or clouding our judgement. Diversity (of mind sets, viewpoints, experiences) is one thing that helps us become aware of our filters and assumptions. It is people who are different from us who can see what we can no longer see; they are the ones who can elicit the assumptions we make. The small fly in the ointment is, working in diversity easily leads to miscommunication and misunderstandings. This, in fact, was a key reason for David Bohm to write his book "On Dialog": when working in a group of different experts who were all trying to make sense of the same phenomena he was confronted with communication challenges. So, we need diversity and collaboration to achieve innovation and sustainability, working in diversity is tricky, hence we need to learn the skills of dialogue. We need to learn to listen and observe to discover, understand and create, rather than listen and observe to seek confirmation of our assumptions, beliefs and ideas.

Hence, we need to listen, rather than just hear. The difference? Hearing refers to the sounds and words we hear. Listening requires more: it requires an open mind and heart. Listening means paying attention not only to the words we hear, but also the use of language, ie choice of words, the tone of voice, and how the other person uses his or her body. And it is about listening for what is NOT being said. In other words, it means being aware of both verbal and non-verbal messages, of explicit and implicit meaning. It means being aware of the whole person, their emotions, their context and concerns. Your ability to truly listen depends on the degree to which you are able to perceive and decode what is being communicated. *


Michael Ende's book Momo is one of Dorothea's favourite books, not least because it is about a little girl who's main quality is the way she can listen; indeed, the entire 2nd chapter talks about listening and here is how Momo's listening skill is characterised: "She listened in a way that made slow-witted people have flashes of inspiration. It wasn't that she actually said anything or asked questions that put such ideas into their heads. She simply sat there and listened with the utmost attention and sympathy, fixing them with her big, dark eyes, and they suddenly became aware of ideas whose existence they had never suspected. Momo could listen in such a way that worried and indecisive people knew their own minds from one moment to the next, or shy people felt suddenly confident and at ease, or downhearted people felt happy and hopeful...."

What Momo does is ‘creating space’ for another person to step into and expand; she is not afraid of silence, just offering her presence, her awareness, her compassion. If we truly listen the focus is not on the self but the other.

And what of observing?

This is probably best explained with a few quotes! We’d like to start with American author, poet, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) who said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” continue with another American, poet and critic Ezra Pound (1885-1972): “Genius is the capacity to see ten things where the ordinary man sees one.” and conclude with English novelist, poet and politician Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873): “Every man who observes vigilantly, and resolves steadfastly, grows unconsciously into genius.”

It is about looking at the same things as other yet seeing things they don’t. It is about looking beyond the obvious, seeing behind the curtain, spotting weak signals, noticing small deviations, recognising meaningful disturbances and patterns. How often do we look yet don’t see! If you would like to find out how good you are at observing, and truly seeing, noticing, click here to watch an interesting and revealing video on youtube.

Visual arts offer a great door into the world of observation: according to German philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) art offers an invitation to learn to look beyond the obvious. Art is thus about discovering the multiple, often contradicting and complex layers of reality in a non-personal. The non-personal aspect of it is rather important: too often is the expression of different viewpoints, possible realities and perspective (mis-)understood as personal criticism and allocation of blame. Yet feeling criticised and blamed is the surest way to prevent ‘true listening’, it shuts us down. So, if you would like to find out more about the art of viewing, have a look at art history and art philosophy!

Before this blog gets any longer let’s offer our seventeenth insight: For true dialogue we need to listen, and observe with an open heart and mind; we need to reconnect to all aspects of our sensing system, integrating our body (sensations) - soul (emotions) - mind (thoughts) when we are listening and observing. Only then will we be able to perceive - and share - a version of reality that is not tinted by the “glasses” that each and every one of us have developed.

* This explanation of the difference between listening and hearing builds on something we found on a website where you can also find 10 principles of good listening.

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