Chapter 1: Listening with All the Senses
Conscious leaders are waking up and becoming more aware of themselves, of others, and of their environment. They are listening generously with all their senses, feeling all their feelings, and creating space for becoming more mindful and for noticing what is going on around them. This chapter is an invitation to begin waking up. Whoever you are—rich or poor, young or old, leader or follower—I invite you to accept this invitation to wake up, recognizing that conscious leadership requires us all to become wide awake and to stay awake and alert in all aspects of our lives.
A Zen Buddhist story reminds us about the importance of waking up and noticing what is going on. You may have heard the story before in one of its many variations. A man being chased by a vicious tiger comes to the edge of a cliff. As the tiger closes in on him, the man notices a vine leading over the cliff and down the precipice. Quickly he crawls over the edge and begins to climb down the vine, only to discover another tiger waiting for him below. Looking up, he sees a mouse gnawing away at the vine, his lifeline, and looking down, he sees the tiger. Just then, he spots a luscious strawberry within arm’s reach. He seizes the berry and eats it. Ah, how delicious the strawberry tastes. Can you stop and notice the beauty in your environment and the people around you despite all the tigers and the mice?
In this chapter, we will explore how conscious leaders listen generously using all their senses, feel all the feelings, increase their self-awareness, become more aware of others and the environment around them, and create space for mindfulness.
Active listening has been part of leadership skills training curriculums for many years. Leaders have been encouraged to talk less and listen more, to make eye contact, to lean in, to keep arms and hands open and relaxed, to avoid interrupting, to smile, and to encourage the speaker to continue with a nod of the head or a short verbal comment. Listening generously requires much more than active listening. As Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and well-known Catholic writer, says, we must slow down to a human tempo so that we can begin to have time to listen. This requires a level of stillness and silence to really hear what is being said, a concentration within ourselves and on the person speaking.
Our concentration is affected by barriers or filters that get in the way of our listening. Distractions are everywhere, whether conversations close by, pictures and noise from televisions broadcasting constantly, or our own inability to ignore our mobile devices. We may be feeling tired, hungry, or stressed out. The speaker may be telling a long, boring story that we have heard many times before. We may be looking forward to something coming up later in the day. We may be, consciously or unconsciously, applying listening filters; we may be dismissing what the person is saying as insignificant, trying to diagnose the problem and thinking of ways to fix it, or becoming defensive. Managing these barriers and letting go of these filters can help with our concentration.
Silence and stillness are prerequisites for listening generously. Listening is not just waiting to speak. It’s about listening to others without interruption, without simultaneously preparing what you want to say next. I see this in my young grandchildren. I often speak with them via Skype video conference. They are full of energy, dancing around the room and sitting down in front of the camera for just a few seconds at a time. They want to share the excitement of their day, and I am happy to listen. I don’t need to be preparing to speak; I’m happy to share in their excitement. Stillness comes only at the end of the day, at story time, when they are listening to their favorite bedtime stories, which I love to read when visiting. Silence and stillness while listening to a client, colleague, or friend are just as important. The silence provides the space for them to speak; the stillness inside us provides the space for us to listen. Allowing the space for silence takes practice. Following Mahatma Gandhi’s guidance “to speak only to improve on the silence” is wise advice for the conscious leader.
Rachel Naomi Remen, one of the pioneers in the mind/body holistic health movement, said, “When you listen generously to people, they can hear the truth in themselves, often for the first time, and in the silence of listening you can know yourself in everyone.” Watching someone really listen generously to another without interrupting has been a personal privilege during my leadership training classes. The speaker often reports the positive emotions experienced when being listened to so intently, sometimes sharing something deep and meaningful for the very first time.
“The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people” was how Woodrow Wilson put it. More than that, listening generously is an important practice for conscious leaders, and I am reminded of Winnie the Pooh, who suggested, “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” Becoming a conscious leader requires us to make sure our ears are free of fluff. But listening with our ears is not enough. We need to be listening with all our senses.