Life Lessons

Level 4 Listening

Listening is hard work, at least it is if you do it right. I am reminded of this as I struggle to listen well these days. So easy to tune out the unwanted, the ugly, the other. So difficult to hear some things said out loud and believe they are believed. Empathy is tough sledding.

Theory U emphasizes deep listening – “Level 4 Listening” – in which the circle of our attention widens and new possibilities open up. At Level 4, listening comes from outside of our personal and preconceived notions and we feel profoundly connected to others. Time seems to slow down, space seems to open up, and our focus shifts from ourselves to something much larger. Level 4 listening is all about the empathy — and then some.

It sounds awfully woo-woo until it happens. And then you feel it and you don’t ever want to go back to lesser listening. But it’s hard, and it requires practice, and it takes time.

The coaching circle is the space within Theory U’s ULab where we get to practice this deep listening. Through a specific protocol, small groups (“coaching circles”) share their challenges and aspirations (“cases”) and tap into the power of deep listening. Each member has a turn to share her/his case; others listen intently, sit for a few minutes in silent reflection and then share what comes up for them. No problem solving, no sage advice, just reflection.

What comes up in those moments is fascinating and deeply moving. Having taken the course once already, I knew the power of the process. But I didn’t anticipate what F. would do with it. He showed up in my coaching circle this time with a whole new language. Instead of speaking his reflections, he improvised them on an electric keyboard somewhere out of view of our international video conferences. From across an ocean, his music wrapped itself around us, speaking volumes, giving voice.

We were mesmerized. We begged him to share his gift with others.

And, since ULab is all about  listening to the future that is trying to emerge and taking the leap into doing and trying and prototyping into that future, he has. He has!

He’s experimenting, collaborating with other musicians, exploring venues for sharing. A big part of prototyping is tapping into others’ insights – more listening. In that spirit, he asked our circle to help him articulate what he does. This was the best I could do. It is barely sufficient, but F. says it “resonates truth” and that is enough:

The coaching circle protocol asks us to listen, deeply, while the case giver speaks, then sit in silent reflection for a few minutes and share what came up for us. Each time, your music has felt like a completely  uncensored reflection both of the case and of you. It feels deeply genuine, and profoundly respectful. There is no doubt that you have been listening. I can’t know this, of course, but it feels that way. And it has felt that way whether it was my own case or someone else’s. In terms of Theory U: this modeled Level 4 listening in a way that was exciting and new to me.

For example, your own reflection this week: I heard what sounded to me like a fascinating interplay between (1) an almost mechanical beat that suggested steady work-a-day work and reminded me of Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” and (2) a bright, chiming sound like a bell that was equally persistent but infinitely more hopeful. The music moved back and forth between darker moments and lighter, with, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have said, “an arc toward justice”. It felt emergent, cautious but determined, full of a longing that seemed to believe in its own fulfillment.  I don’t know that any of us could have said all of that – but your music did. Again, in terms of Theory U: each time you play feels like making that leap across the bottom of the U – you move us into a future that is trying to emerge by offering us a sound track to go with it. Your willingness to prototype music right then is wonderful.

As someone who can’t really conceive of being able to compose music, this all seems quite magical to me. You do something I can’t even begin to know how to do.  And, yet, while I think of myself as not knowing how to “speak” the language of music, I certainly know how to hear it. And this is what is so remarkable: you give expression, in a language I don’t think I speak, to thoughts and feelings that I understand immediately through that expression. I find that tremendously powerful – and hopeful. If we can actually understand how others feel, even if we “don’t speak the language” then there is hope for us as a species across nations and tribes and all our other divides.  If that isn’t the essence of Theory U, then I don’t know what is.

You heard it here first, folks. Mark my words, more than our little coaching circle will be cheering F. on soon enough. Makes me smile.

Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand

~ Stevie Wonder, Sir Duke


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