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‘I’m not going to talk to you today I’m going to listen.’

Of course, I’m lying.

The entire purpose of this blog, of any blog on the RSA website, or indeed any opinion on the internet is to do the opposite of listen.  We opine, we broadcast, we tell.

And this presents a problem. For the argument I am going to make today is that in this age of telling, of clever people saying interesting things (interesting according to them, at least) we find ourselves at a moment of great danger. Whether it is about Brexit or war; in our workplaces or in the private moments of our own lives, we are at risk of losing perhaps one of the most fascinating and complex and human qualities we have.

We risk losing our ability to listen.

Learning to listen in Jerusalem

I have just returned from Israel. While there, I was fortunate to speak to professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem about the future of work, automation, and AI: subjects on which I lead at the RSA.

The university is a living echo from history. During a campus tour I saw the brooding, beautiful Judean desert from the ancient view point on Mount Scopus. I saw meticulously reconstructed terracotta amphorae more than eight thousand years old, used to carry wine to King David. I saw the original type-form of Schindler’s list, blurred and blotchy and pregnant with heroism. Amidst all of this, perhaps one of my most fascinating encounters was with a Professor named Avi Kluger. His specialism – his mission, one might say – is listening.

It began when Professor Kluger and I sat down with a few others over lunch in the light filled dining room of the Hebrew University canteen. From our window we could see the old city, the golden minaret of the Dome of the Rock, and the ancient city walls. A throaty call to afternoon prayer rang out over the olive trees. We ate bulgur salad and vine-tomatoes and fresh fish and drank fresh lemonade.

I was there to talk about the RSA and began. But Kluger asked me to hold fire a moment. Instead he asked me speak about a time in my recent working life when I felt truly happy and alive.

So I told him.

The magic of being listened to

Kluger is a professor of organisational management at the university, but he is also a pioneer in the movement known as ‘deep listening.’

That day, I spoke and he listened. My story was pretty ordinary: I rambled on about a recent workshop of the RSA’s Future Work Centre. We used a design-driven process to encourage retailers to reshape the future of their workforce, to articulate challenges and solutions. We asked them – how would a child think about this problem? What if Ikea had to build a solution? With prompts like these, the brain sparked and inspiration flowed. You could see it in the people around you.  ‘Like dropping a tab of acid, or so I reckon’, as I once put it to my disapproving peers and to my lunch companions.

After I finished speaking, Kluger paused a moment and said, very slowly “let me see if I’ve got this right. I am going to play it back for you, if you’ll allow.”

And he did. He played back my story beat for beat, with an astonishing, crystal clear fidelity. Indeed, like one of those expensive hi-fi headphones, he actually managed to smooth it out. No rambles. No extraneous matter, no white noise. The key parts expanded to hit their emotional heights. The silly details left on the table. Both myself and my fellow lunch guests were astonished that something so simple could make us –me -  feel so… special.

All he did was listen.

And for the first time in my life, perhaps, I had been listened to.

“Feedback is a myth”: You are not listening even when you think you are

Think about the conversations you have had with people today. When, honestly, can you say that you were you truly, 100% listening?

I was just now discussing this blog with a colleague at the water cooler. While we were talking, he mentioned he was away for the previous week and got married. I mentioned that I was in Israel. I congratulated him on his wedding. He asked me about my experience with Professor Kluger. I began in that moment to think about how this water cooler conversation might contribute to this blog. I became conscious that he had already poured his coffee and was ready to leave, even as he told me about his wedding. I noticed he was making slight steps towards the door as he spoke, and I fancied another chocolate from the table beside us; chocolates he brought back from his trip abroad. What was his wife’s name? Nicky? Sam? I think it’s the latter but next time I see him I will subtly check.

It was a perfectly reasonable, even convivial conversation, between two friendly colleagues, who get on well. And yet neither of us were truly listening.

Many things in our culture are often labelled listening but are really just ways of telling. Under this category often comes ‘the liberal marketplace of ideas’, psychoanalysis, line management, human resource protocols. All become forms of telling when power distorts the relationship.

One of the ‘listening-labelled’ things Professor Kluger is most critical of is the idea of ‘giving feedback’. A study of his analysed receiving feedback against employee performance. He found 38% of people given feedback at work actually experienced a significant drop in performance – whether that was positive or negative feedback. “Feedback is a myth” he told me:

“When you give feedback, even if it is positive, you put yourself in a position of judgement relative to the other person. You have disrupted your power relationship for worse. You have effectively ended your options to listen. And if you don’t listen, you can neither be complex as an individual nor can you relate to those who are close to you.”

The three reasons we don’t listen

Kluger, in his recent Ted talk, which I urge you to watch, outlined three main reasons that we choose not to listen:

1 Status anxiety

They say that as leaders become more powerful, we listen less and speak more. Wrong. It’s the opposite. The weaker and worse a leader, or group of leaders, the less they listen.

This is because they suffer from status anxiety. Bad leaders feel that listening will weaken their esteem in the eyes of their peers and employees. Any listening they do becomes temporary, a precursor to their own telling.

2 We value dominance more the esteem

Consider also that there is indeed a trade off between listening and not listening.

Put simply, when we listen, we compromise our position of dominance in a group our pack. However, by listening we also do something wonderful: we raise our esteem among other members of the group.

Leaders who do not listen either consciously or subconsciously do not value the esteem of their peers as much as their own sense of dominance (however fragile that may be). Their concern is not mutual respect but maintaining a power relationship.

3 We don’t know how to listen

Sometimes the above is conscious. However often it is performed unknowingly.Most of us, simply, do not know how to listen. We fall into accepted systems of non-listening – such as giving feedback – because we have no tools to listen or deep-listen at our disposal. We lean on scientific tools of listening – such as big data or randomised controlled trials – and forget the human mechanics of listening, person to perons.

This incapacity to listen – and the way that society apparently rewards those who do not listen - is one of the great failures and most consistently depressing aspects of our social, political, economic and educational systems.

The three ways to listen better

This is where Professor Kluger’s work comes in. Briefly, Professor Kluger talks in his work about three techniques that enable anyone to become a better listener – ‘the three Fs’.

1. Find the Story

This is what I witnessed in action in my very brief introduction. Story sharing lies at the heart of learning how to listen.

How to tell good stories and how to translate stories into the magic I described earlier so that both listener and the listened to feel connected? That’s the art.

2. Facilitate

My own story was, randomly, about a time I facilitated – a time I brought people together to create a space for a productive conversation.

A very important part of our work at the RSA is about including more people in the conversation about change. In the economy team, that’s about the ethics of AI and workers’ role in technological change. But it is true across the RSA: it’s one of the key ways that we work.

Facilitation takes many forms and I believe, as far as we are, we are still only scratching the surface. How to facilitate to properly and deeply listen? This is the question.

3. Feed Forward

Instead of talking about what has happened, we need to focus our response on the future.

There are many elements to feeding forward, rather than feeding back. But how to collectively develop while communicating what the terms of that development look like? That’s the challenge.

Other tips for listening better

I noticed a couple of other things as well when we talked about the habits of deep listening.

Kluger set the scene before each mini-session, insisting that we get our food and before sitting down for each listening session to eat. So session one was ‘starter’, session two was ‘main course.’ This was great: informal and very much in my comfort zone.

More disconcertingly, as I spoke his gaze was fixed. There were no nods, no mmhmms. No behavioural tells were given while I was talking. Later I reflected: the very Anglo-Saxon tendency to acknowledge through verbal cues is actually another form of non-listening.

Finally, Kluger admitted up front that his focus might wander over the course of his listening to me. But “as with mindfulness” he would always at those moments try to catch himself and bring his attention back. He shared his own weaknesses when it came to listening and this engendered a real sense of mutual esteem.

Teaching Listening

Professor Kluger and I took the pips out of the last slices of watermelon and then we took a walk into the scorching afternoon sun. The call to prayer had long passed and there was a complete silence. Professor Kluger pointed out some of the holy sites in the old city. He is a son of Holocaust survivors and through the slightly guttural cadence in his voice he expressed an obvious reverence for these places of meaning and human connection.

“If you ask me honestly,” he said, “ What I really want is that one day, schools will teach four things. Reading, writing, arithmetic, and listening.”

There were a few of us on that balcony but there was silence. In that silence, we listened in our own way. I thought of generations who had warred and fought here and elsewhere and who still fight. I thought of workplaces made sour by bad leaders and big egos. I thought of people I had done wrong through not listening and all the people with whom I could still connect if I just learned to listen better.  

We can but try.


If you’d like to find out more about how and why we listen, I urge you to watch Professor Kluger’s Ted Talk. Depending on interest, I’d be happy to write more about Professor Kluger’s work and the Deep Listening movement more broadly: please let me know in the comments or on Twitter @robinasheem

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