Breaking our Downloading Habit to Really Listen
By Fanny Passeport & Emma Ahmed
As many schools currently work on post-pandemic wellbeing goals, we observe initiatives at the tip of the iceberg: mindfulness as a buzzword, great use of euphemisms, giving away ice creams, and sharing quotes and words of wisdom… While a school’s initiatives may resemble ‘wellness’, are these really digging deep or simply staying at the surface level with quick fixes that only respond to symptoms? (Senge, 2010). Despite the intention to patch up staff stress with positivity, these actions recreate the same problems and take the attention away from identifying the deeper sources of stress or frustration. What is the answer? One strategy is to listen, to really listen.
“You know, you really made my week. I ended up having one of the hardest weeks… It just seems the insanity never ends. I’m extremely exhausted and it seemed like no one cared but the fact that you could see my pain made me feel heard and your message kept me going.”
-Anisha, personal email following a deep listening conversation.
We often underestimate the power of listening. Listening with our full presence, even for a short amount of time, can create a vital human connection in times of hardship. We write this piece with the aim to unpack what deep listening really means and how anyone, in any school context, can apply and begin a small revolution, supporting the well-being of their colleagues, students, and their own community beyond school. Deep listening allows us to open our heart, mind, and willpower (Scharmer, 2016), embodying principles of radical compassion. It is an action that any individual can take to create the sense of belonging, significance, and relatedness that every human being longs for (Deci & Ryan, 1985). The resources needed are within us and simply require our awareness and intentionality.
Let’s examine four levels of listening – developed by Scharmer (2016) – and observe how we might be engaging in them and what we can do differently to reclaim humane interactions.
Listening by habit (downloading)
The first level of listening is listening by habit or downloading. It occurs when the listener is simply waiting for an opportunity to react and reconfirm what is already known. This type of listening reinforces what is easy and convenient for the listener and operates from an EGO-system perspective, making our internal world all that matters. We may also download when we are short of words or don’t know how to respond, using this mode of listening to camouflage our insecurities and stay in the known and familiar.
This can be illustrated by some of these statements:
- I understand but parents need this/that.
- I know you are tired but please stay positive!
- We are going online again tomorrow so thank you for being flexible!
- When I was working at [X school], we implemented [X intervention/program] and it worked, so have faith in the process.
This pattern of listening may also be observed when we do not question anything and fall into an apparent complacent attitude. We might, for example, engage in “pluralist ignorance” (Miller & McFarland, 1987) when we go into a staff meeting and simply sit and download to ‘get the meeting over with’, preventing ourselves from sharing a diverging perspective as we believe that the majority will not hear us. This creates schools with silent teachers who self-censure and even act in support of the status quo despite their inner misalignment.
When downloading, we may be unintentionally enacting toxic positivity: trying to make people feel better by insisting on positivity, without really considering that it could make them feel invalidated or even be experienced as gaslighting.
A first step to challenging downloading is to acknowledge that we have implicit biases, hidden goals behind our words, attitudes, behaviors, and a lot of noise polluting other people’s contributions. We can strive to set those aside by suspending them in the air but also by acknowledging that we are not perfect. We might need to take more risks, and have the courage to listen more deeply – letting ourselves access our vulnerability and treasuring what makes us human. In a group, we can unmute ourselves and share our dissonances, to avoid becoming bystanders and exercise our integrity.
The second level, factual listening, takes place when we begin to notice a dissonance; when we start to observe the disconfirmation of our ideas and yet stay focused on technical rationality. For example, when we observe student data that is inconsistent. If we listen factually, we may be conscious of cognitive conflicts but not necessarily address them collaboratively or holistically.
While it goes beyond downloading, through the spark of awareness, this pattern of listening still lacks the human touch and might be enacted when we overly rely on “data”, “evidence” and things that we can tangibly observe or measure. For example, think about how “research” is carefully selected to amplify someone’s point (usually someone with power), giving the illusion of objectivity. It can be experienced as manipulative (“a hidden agenda”) when data-driven decisions are made without considering all voices or all ways of knowing (such as people’s actual first-hand experiences and tacit knowledge).
The danger of such shortcuts is that we do not address the root of a problem. The reality is always more nuanced and requires us to contextualize and interpret carefully. When we operate from a factual listening perspective, we purely rely on our head, and minimize the necessary human steps required to interpret the facts or challenge decisions around data. What such listening patterns lack is the opening of our affective channel that allows us to understand from an experiential perspective by the opening of the heart, not just the mind.
Some of the ways to mitigate the problems associated with factual listening are to take the time to slow down and pause to examine the beliefs and assumptions behind the conclusions and decisions that are being made and to ask for someone else’s perspective; if possible someone who is likely to see things differently than us. We need to apply reflexivity (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992) by bending onto ourselves in order to experience dissonances and make visible the things that are not so easy to observe and state, and also consider our professional judgment and diverse voices.
In factual listening, there can be an underlying assumption that stakeholders are all the same when we know that people are variable in all sorts of ways (CAST, 2018). It can be context-stripping and reductionist to shrink people into data points. Another problem lies with our obsession with order and converging. For example, selecting certain statistics of achievement – such as exam results as compared to the world average – to depict success on school websites, reinforces an outcome orientation that contradicts inclusive and equitable values. What if, instead, schools started to share diverse stories of success to acknowledge growth, the learning process, and shared values?
At the level of empathic listening, we move beyond listening for facts and explore feelings and nuances. When we acknowledge a person’s emotional state or experience, it provides validation and support. Human beings universally experience the desire to be heard and to feel valued (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Satisfying this need is crucial for individuals who have been systematically marginalized. By taking this stance, we can see from others’ perspectives and also create a psychologically safe space where we can challenge others’ thinking, taking conversations to deeper levels and improving both the speaking and the listening experience.
It might sound like: I hear you, it is very hard right now and has been for a long time, OR You are exhausted because there is too much going on right now. It can be a delayed warm message to someone in need: I could see you had a very hard day yesterday and I wanted to tell you that I noticed.
In order to empathize with someone, as part of our listening repertoire, we can use paraphrasing techniques where we summarize what we heard in the conversation. Cognitive Coaching identifies acknowledging, organizing, and abstracting paraphrases (Costa & Garmston, 2015).
- Acknowledging our conversation partner makes them feel heard and demonstrates the value we place on their response. For example: You want to co-create this assessment.
- Organizing puts the thoughts we heard in order for the listener. For example: You want to research ideas, then collaborate before you design the assessment.
- An abstracting paraphrase elevates the person’s deepest values and beliefs, highlighting why a struggle or a celebration is so important or impactful. For example: You truly value collaboration.
These techniques reflect our conversation partner’s thoughts, allowing them to ‘see’ their own thinking from a different angle or give them an opportunity to clarify their message, whilst demonstrating we are truly listening.
Generative listening is the highest level of listening and focuses on a process of deep connection. Here the listener is committed to seeing the best possible version of their conversation partner and how to co-create or support an ideal outcome. Generative conversations move away from an EGO-system, they take a bird’s-eye view. These optimistic conversations liberate both parties and focus on the ECO-system. Generative listening is enacted when we don’t know yet what will emerge from the conversation and we co-create new ideas in a safe, collaborative space where our energy feeds each other. This makes us realize that the greatest issues we experience are not outside of ourselves but within us and what prevents us from really listening are the voices of judgment, fear, and cynicism (Scharmer, 2016). As we deeply listen, we engage all our senses and begin to experience future possibilities that reveal themselves through our practice of presencing (paying attention to our intentions).
We can assume the role of a ‘mediator of thinking’ (Costa & Garmston, 2015) where our goal as a listener is to intentionally choose our actions to support the thinking of our conversation partner. To do this, we remain in the moment, are fully present in the conversation, truly believe that our partner is capable of growth and development and that the conversation will be able to support our partner’s thinking. Practically, this means continuing techniques such as paraphrasing from the previous levels. Additionally, we can ask probing questions that require the responder to think deeply and help move the conversation in divergent ways. Such questions are for the responder and should not have a hidden agenda, suggestion, or answer.
- What’s your hunch about…?
- What was your intention when…?
- What do you assume to be true about…?
- What if the opposite were true?
- Then what?
- What might be the connection between ________ and _______?
- What might happen if…?
Explore new listening pathways
As we uncover our deeply-rooted habits, we can begin to challenge our mental models, taking courage to observe our listening blindspots. Confronting them can help us direct our attention toward what’s right, over what’s easy and convenient. Knowing these various listening patterns provides us with the opportunity to situate ourselves more consciously when interacting with others and with ourselves. We need to ground ourselves by listening, really listening, not just to what is said, but hear the silences and unspoken pains, letting all voices be heard without editing them.
As we all continue to reflect on what wellbeing really means to us, let’s pause and make space for inviting deep listening in our lives, starting with the act of habit-breaking, to open the door to emerging possibilities.
About the authors:
Emma Ahmed is a G6-12 Learning Coach at AIS Lagos in Nigeria. She loves to spend her days supporting teachers and students through coaching and learning about best practices in education.
- Twitter: @ahmedemma
Fanny Passeport is the Founder of No Borders Learning and works as an Education Development Officer with the radical innovation unit called ErasmusX (Erasmus University Rotterdam).
Bourdieu, P. & Wacquant, L. J. D. (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. University of Chicago Press.
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org
Costa, A. L. & Garmston, R. J. (2015). Cognitive Coaching: Developing Self-Directed Leaders and Learners. Rowman & Littlefield.
Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum Press.
Miller, D. T. & McFarland, C. (1987). Pluralistic ignorance: When similarity is interpreted as dissimilarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 53(2), 298–305. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1248. ISSN 0022-3514.
Scharmer, O., C. (2016). Theory U: Leading From the Emerging Future (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA; Berrett-Koehler.
Senge, P. M (2010). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization. Revised. Crown.