Four levels of listening for policy making

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A few days ago I gave a presentation in a transnational learning context on the four level of listening. It was a learning event  organised by GenCat, within the Panoramed project.

I was asked to talk about “the four levels of listening” (a concept introduced by MIT-based researcher Otto Scharmer) by two wise women Tatiana Fernandez and Adriana Colquechambi, even though I had never heard about that! 

It turns out that thinking about the “four levels of listening” it’s pretty useful if you work in public policy. It’s good to reflect on how we listen when taking decision, implementing them or shaping them as stakeholders. 

There’s level one, which mainly reminds me of campaign slogans, and it’s called “Download”. Reactions are predictable and no amount of questioning can actually shake one’s convictions. The monkey in our head does the listening. Like Home Simpson: we won’t change our thinking!

Then there is level two: “Factual Listening”. This is the one that, in principle, underpins “peer reviews” in policy learning. We use our head. We compare facts. We can be clear and objective about what we listen to and draw (despairing or constructing) conclusions based on the evidence. This is what Lisa Simpson and Mafalda are famous for!

Then there is level three: “Empathetic Listening”. This is the one we expect or desire from a good friend, a parent, a mentor, it’s Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter. It is the listening that makes us care from the hearth about the other.  In policy term we could see that in action in “twinning and pairing ” schemes, were typically two parts cooperates, with the idea that the follower learns from the leader. 

 However, when we deal with something massive and new to all, no amount of empathy will lead to a solution: no one has been there, no one can tell us with certainty how to move. When we deal with something with highly uncertain outcomes no amount of factual comparison can be of sufficient guide: we know things are going to be rough, but we don’t know exactly how. In this case, we need something new. We need to listen at level four: the “Generative” one. This is when you listen to co-create and experiment because any other option seems insufficient. This is the listening that Freddie Mercury and the audience engaged in during “live at Wembley”, testing and pushing each other boundaries, and making history in the meanwhile. In policy terms, that’s the type of listening we need to address climate change: a huge challenge, with many unpredictable outcomes for which current thinking falls short. 

Here are some more resources from (thanks to Adriana):

You can find my presentation linked below.