Transformative Listening: Invigorating Your Life with Each Conversation

On that particular Monday evening as I moved through the women's section of the hospice ward at San Francisco's Laguna Honda Hospital, Betty called out to me. A woman in her mid-50s, Betty was in the end stages of her dance with metastatic breast cancer. She had lost considerable weight in recent weeks. Her coloring verged on a mottled gray. She lay with covers tucked over her shoulders, brought up under her chin, her hairless head tucked into a dirty white knit cap. Betty asked me to check the windows by her bed, as she was feeling a draft. She was always cold these days, and uncomfortable.

I checked the windows and asked if I could bring her another blanket. She answered, "please" and I set out to bring her additional warmth and comfort. After I adjusted the additional blanket, I asked Betty if I could sit with her for a while. She said, "yes," so I pulled up a chair by her bedside.

Betty was not an easy person to sit with. Her schizophrenia often completely denied her any impulse control. Some extraordinarily mean things flew from her mouth, with no awareness from Betty as to their impact. I didn't really mind if she complained of my ukulele musicianship or my poor singing as I entertained residents a few beds away. It was much harder listening to her desire that the blind woman, situated immediately across from her, should just die because she was so annoying. But that was Betty. She had no filters. She had no control.

Like many for whom I've had the honor to serve, Betty was engaged in a life review as her days drew to an end. That evening, as I sat quietly with her, she began to talk about her sons. She lost custody of them when they were just toddlers, owing to her mental health. Shortly thereafter, she began living on the streets, first in Texas, then in Southern California, finally moving up the coast to San Francisco, which she now considered "home." After those 30-plus years, she had never communicated with her sons. She didn't know where they were, and she imagined they had no idea of her circumstance.

Betty had no real expectations of some last-minute reconciliation. But she struggled with the idea that she had "failed" her sons as a mother. As I sat with Betty, asking her the occasional open-ended question, she went deeper into her inquiry. She began to put the pieces together, eventually realizing that, owing to her mental illness, she had probably done the best mothering of which she was capable. "Letting the boys go" may have been her final act of love for them, as she was not a competent mother.

When she reached this conclusion, her eyes closed and she fell peacefully to sleep. I again tucked her blankets around her and left her bedside. Betty died two days later. Betty was one of many residents who have taught me something extraordinary about what would appear to be the simple act of listening. To be attentive might appear passive, but it really isn't. It is an active engagement. It requires making yourself available, free from judgments and beliefs. It requires empathy, which means you must overcome your self-centeredness, your personality and your narrative.

It demands that you exist, for the period of the listening engagement, for the benefit of the speaker. It insists that you be available for whatever is communicated, no matter how potentially disagreeable, upsetting, incongruous or hurtful, it may be. I call this practice transformative listening.

Transformative listening requires certain qualities of strength, endurance and discipline to master. And, in many cases, it may require the acknowledgment of failure and a renewed dedication to becoming available again and again, even in the course of a single conversation.

Finally, transformative listening does not just engage your ears and mind. It requires focused attention on your body, heart, gut and "spirit," all while engaging the speech, facial expressions, body postures and movements, and emotions of the speaker.

Transformative listening is not for the faint of heart or the opportunistic dabbler. It is not a "pickup" game of basketball on an urban playground. It reminds me of aikido, a continually evolving martial art practice of awareness, discipline, respect and spirit.

Curiously, the word "listening" infers a sense of passivity, almost femininity, in application. After all, isn't it the female who is expected to excel in her receptivity, her openness, her listening? And how many great historical figures are cited for their exceptional listening capabilities?

Transformative listening encompasses awareness, patience, non-judgment and empathy, yet it requires strength, perseverance, tenacity and sacrifice. But transformative listening is powerful. It can even prove career or life changing. Here is why:

Access: Transformative listening allows the speaker to access a more fundamental level of communication, allowing the real thoughts, concerns, issues and emotions to surface. The speaker can get to the truth with greater ease and clarity. The communication becomes clear, direct and unadorned. You, then, receive the essence of what is occurring for the speaker.

Validation: Transformative listening validates the speaker. One of the greatest human needs is to be valued by another. Whether you are lovers, friends, acquaintances or even opponents, transformative listening conveys to the speaker that he or she is valued, if only for purposes of this conversation. You communicate, implicitly, that whatever the speaker expresses is worthy of consideration. At this moment, and for this time, the speaker and you are equals. That is an enormously powerful consideration.

Perception: Transformative listening allows for potentially enormous shifts in your view of a person, event or issue. This arises from the fact that you consciously have chosen to fully allow what the speaker has to say, without judgment or subconscious blocking. The speaker speaks with clarity; you hear accordingly. You have access to other senses and intelligences as you attend to the sounds, facial expressions, body positioning and movement, and emotional expressions of the speaker. This inclusive awareness creates greater opportunities for understanding, if not agreement. Having nothing to defend, you are able to "try on" new perspectives, previously inaccessible or unknown. From new perspectives, existing knowledge, understanding and experience adapt to new form.

Connection: Irrespective of your prior relationship, the speaker and you perceive one another in a different light. A certain type of "intimacy" develops out of the speaker's opportunity to speak from a place of greater meaning, from your attending to the speaker as an equal, without judgment, and from your heightened awareness of the speaker's gestalt. Obfuscations and ambiguities, designed to protect the speaker, arising from his or her personality and narrative, dissolve in whole or part, revealing more of the speaker's essence. Such revelation constitutes intimacy in its most fundamental form. It fosters connection. A speaker, experiencing transformative listening, unconsciously shifts his or her stance, when it is your turn to speak. Your presence shifts the entire ground of communication, making the connection mutual.

Creativity: Transformative listening evokes creativity. It might arise as a microcreative "burst" that propels you forward, or a series of such "bursts" that leads you to an innovative solution. Or, it might be that one "aha!" moment of insight that takes you immediately to an extraordinary conclusion. This only comes about as a consequence of the fact that you were able to suspend your beliefs and judgments and attune yourself to the speaker, who directly or indirectly offered you a new view of an old problem. Alternatively, as a consequence of your newly found connection, you may collaborate with the speaker to co-create an outcome, each of you contributing your own sparks of insight, arising from your newly discovered perspectives of one another and the issue at hand.

Listening is a sine qua non of leadership. Leaders are open to influence, make connections, collaborate with colleagues, and contribute to creative results - all of which require transformative listening skills. Transformative listening is effective and efficient. It quickly leads you to the real issues, builds connections for collaborative problem-solving and shifts perceptions for creativity. In turn, this leads to lower costs, better outcomes and innovation. Transformative listening creates power. I don't mean the power of domination. Rather, I refer to the power of influence. Transformative listeners are attractors of connections, information, intelligence and innovation. Because transformative listeners greet the world with openness and curiosity, they build bridges amongst people, make people feel better about them, and create productive environments.

You share many conversations over the course of the day, week or month. Most probably are restricted to a small community - your family, friends, colleagues, business associates and clients. Would it benefit your community to evolve to greater levels of respect, connection, collaboration and creativity? Why not try transformative listening?

Continue Reading