The Character of Listening

Posted 02.15.2016

What does it mean to really listen? As I’ve written here before, I’ve been focusing a lot on that question in my talks and workshops on mindful leadership. When I ask colleagues to sit with each other for just a few minutes to listen to each other speak about something important in their lives or something they’re grateful for, the process feels transformative for them.

What’s really going on when we listen to someone else completely and without any agenda other than to connect? At a conference this past weekend, I was introduced to a simple but powerful way to think about that by a new friend, Christopher Kai.

In a brief talk to the conference participants, Chris explained that the Chinese character for listening (which accompanies this post) offers an integrative approach to transformational listening.

As explained in this post on the website of the U.S. Department of State,  the left side of the character represents the ears. No surprise there. The strokes on the right side of the character are where things get more interesting. The crossing horizontal and vertical lines at the top represent you. To listen, you have to be present. The rectangular box with the two strokes inside it represents your eyes. You listen with your eyes as well as your ears. The wavy horizontal stroke below the eyes represents your undivided attention. Transformational listening requires that. And, finally, the strokes below your undivided attention represent your heart. When you’re listening fully, you connect with the other person on a empathetic level.

So what are you giving when you’re really listening? Yes, you’re lending your ears but you’re also giving your full presence, your eyes, your undivided attention and your heart. It’s a simple but powerful combination. Why not look for some opportunities to bring all of that to at least some of the conversations you’ll have this week?