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Listening to Address Fear

Our society has been in ‘fear mode’ for many months.  The amount of uncertainty and need for safety has been high, creating withdrawal behaviours and an ‘us vs them’ mentality.  This becomes evident in the vaccinated/unvaccinated dynamic, fear of new variants, isolating ourselves, etc.  Leaders have a massive job trying to address fear in the workplace and the current need for reflection and listening is high.

Listening is a skill that can be under valued as a leadership quality but can be the most impactful way to respond in difficult situations.  Can we listen beyond the words, for the unspoken and really hear what may be creating fear for our employees?  Most of us are not used to being listened to, having someone to be with us as we think out loud, vent or share.  What I have seen is that providing this space can be an opportunity for those to hear themselves, to see something in a different way, recognize their emotions and find their own solution.

Listening was a significant element of an online course that I took part in through MIT. Otto Scharmer, a colleague of Peter Senge’s (a well know systems thinking guru) has posted some of the course content on YouTube and this link to Levels of Listening is about 8 minutes long, but well worth the time.

Otto Scharmer is a Senior Lecturer at MIT and co-founder of the Presencing Institute. He chairs the MIT IDEAS program for cross-sector innovation that helps leaders from business, government, and civil society to innovate at the level of the whole system.

In the video he speaks of the most important tool for leaders today, not vision, not charisma, but listening.

Here is an excerpt of Otto’s thoughts from the video and an associated chart;

“Whenever I see leadership failures– and these days we have many occasions to do that– very often at the source of leadership failure is what? It’s lack of listening, it’s lack of connecting with what’s really going on in reality right now. It’s a disconnection between leaders on the one hand and the situation on the ground on the other. So listening really is a core skill, not only for leadership, but really for all domains of mastery, professional mastery. So we all practice listening 16 plus hours a day, so it’s not something that we only engage with every now and then. And it is as important for our professional life as it is for our personal life. So I observed listening for many years. And I came up with a very simple distinction, which is four different levels of listening.”

This ties in well with his Levels of Conversation which I’ve previously shared on LinkedIn. Where are our conversations headed if we are all listening at the “Downloading” level just to verify what we already know or assume?  At Level 2, the Factual Listening Level we strive to listen for data that doesn’t fit our existing theories and assumptions. How could they be wrong? How would an open mind change our perspective of the situation?


Level 3 – Empathic Listening gives us an emotional connection to the speaker and allows us to see the situation from another’s point of view. Not to agree with them, but to understand what they are seeing and experiencing.  Level 4 – Generative Listening enables us to listen at a level that changes us. It creates a shift in the direction of who we want to be and a different level of energy is produced.

What can we learn about our employees and ourselves as a leader through this practice?   What would be the impact on our organizations if employees and leaders were able to shift from downloading type listening to a deeper level of generative listening?  Likely it would enable leaders to address the fear that all employees are feeling right now.

The Workplace Fairness Institute works to support organizations to shift their listening and conversing to a different level to generate real results.

“’Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.’ – Dean Jackson


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