Are you hearing or listening?



November is here, and so too is the season of reuniting, connecting, and celebrating. What if the greatest gift you could give is the simple and radical act of “generous listening”?


We often think we are listening. In fact, we even ACT like we are listening. We may truly believe we are listening. But how often have we begun attending to the voices within our head rather than the humans around us? An oft-told story of my childhood was an example of just that.


My dad and I were in the garden. I was two or three, chattering nonstop and rifling through the dirt. My dad, who had long tuned out my babble, said “uh huh,” every so often, just enough of him "interacting" that I went on with my chatter. He continued this response, even responding in the affirmative when my little voice said, “I’m putting these worms in my pocket to go show them to mom.” Luckily, his brain reengaged moments before I shoved a handful of red wigglers in my bib overalls, saving all of us from a squishy, dirty mess.


As a mom, I’m guilty as charged for “um hmmming” my way through Minecraft, Star Wars, and many other topics that haven’t cemented themselves in my interest. As a human, I’m also guilting of hearing what is happening to see what my next statement or contribution is rather that truly listening. Denison University faculty member Lisbeth Lipari, PhD, shares interesting insights on the origins of the words “listen” and “hear”. ‘Listen’ comes from a root that emphasizes attention and giving to others, while ‘hear’ comes from a root that emphasizes perception and receiving from others. She goes on to say that we frequently treat listening as “a means of preparing one’s next move” in our verbal interactions, that, at its least endearing, may serve “the aim of conquest and control” within our conversations.


In Co-Active coaching, we call this listening for our own contribution and connection first level listening. At this level, we are concentrating on our own interests in what is being shared. We are looking for how we perceive it, how we might be able to “fix” it or offer another story of our own that is similar. First level listening comes back to connecting what is being said to our own agenda rather than truly listening to the other.


Generous listening is an act of exactly the opposite. Coined by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, it is listening only to find out what is true for the other person. Generous listening gives you insights into how the other person experiences the world and what is important to them. In Co-Active coaching, we call this level two listening; it’s what we aim to do with clients during coaching conversations. We are focused only on what they are sharing, how they feel about it, and what’s important about it.


As the holidays approach, I challenge you to practice your generous listening, giving the gift of allowing another to be truly heard, seen and loved. Start now with your favorite barista, kid, partner, and others you encounter. Really hone it in meetings (read again--- I said HONE not PHONE) . Fine tune your skills and get ready to offer the radical act of generous listening to those you love.