The most contradictory weeks of the year have begun. Although the dark season with the longest nights traditionally invites us to contemplate, moments of rest and recovery are lacking more than ever. We are driven by time pressure, errands, and appointments. Usually, we only listen with half an ear at most before we hurry on to the next item on our increasingly long to-do list. No time for contemplation, no time for paying precise attention, and no time for reflection. Stopping to think, though, would often do us more good than hurrying on, or lingering half-heartedly.

Listening is not a waste of time, but gain

Steve Jobs had clear principles in HR management when he was alive. One of them was: “Listen more than you talk!” After all, the Apple founder not only knew that his employees knew more about most subjects than he did, but also that it was important to them to be heard. Listening is an important source of comprehension and knowledge. Every diplomat learns this from the beginning. Those listening attentively will gain information and an understanding of the other. This is precisely what helps improve leadership, which applies to employees as well as to negotiations.

Listening to the other will teach you about them and their needs. This can be helpful in making one’s own point of view easier to understand and also to win over the other with a suitably adapted strategy.

Listening means seeing the world through the other’s eyes. This point of view generates valuable insights, and changes the way we see our own actions. Listening is not a waste of time, but an investment in better cooperation.

From downloading to generation – the four levels of listening

Claus Otto Scharmer, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and co-founder of the Presencing Institute, defines four levels of listening:

  • pure downloading,
  • factual listening,
  • empathetic listening and
  • generative listening

Downloading means that we hear what we have already expected. Our perception is limited to what we already know. We only hear confirmation of our knowledge.

In factual listening, we begin to pay attention to and perceive differences to existing knowledge. These two levels are not enough if you want to get the other person’s approval.

This requires empathetic listening, where I start putting myself in the other person’s shoes. Then, I will no longer just listen with my head, but also use my feelings as perception receptors. This will give me new perspectives. When we listen empathetically, we forget our own agenda for a moment and walk in the other’s shoes. This is enormously helpful to understand a situation or a request.

Finally, generative listening enables us to perceive existing potential that can be raised. In this type of listening, we generate future opportunities. In other words, we perceive the other’s self and help him through targeted questions to better recognize himself.  According to Professor Scharmer, the quality of our relationships is an expression of our ability to listen. He notes that working relationships are a basic capital in organizations, e.g. to successfully master change processes. Active listening is therefore one of the most important skills of leaders and managers.

Whether words or silence – which motive is behind it?

Not only do diplomats listen carefully to what was said when and how, and then figure out why something was said at that time in that situation. No, diplomats also listen carefully to what was NOT said, and reflect on why it didn’t come up. What is said and what isn’t said are like puzzle pieces in communication that diplomats assemble into one great picture that reveals contexts and goals to them. They equally perceive shades of meaning and nuances such as breaks in conversation and information not provided.

True listening is only possible in a state of full attention. And this is something we all lack too often. In the age of information and communication, we sometimes shut ourselves off so as not to be swamped in the maze of news and communications. We then listen selectively and only perceive what we want to perceive. And because we experience that media, marketing, and politics do not care too much about truthfulness, we believe less in what we hear from them, we do not listen properly, and do not take many things seriously. This way some things get lost that we should have paid more attention to. Because sometimes attentive listening to the recipient will uncover the sender’s hidden agenda.

Practical example: Friedrich Merz and his share recommendations

Beyond the politicians’ slogans competing for voter attention, and their declarations of war to political opponents, side-notes and what remains unsaid between the lines are of interest. Since German CDU politician Friedrich Merz declared that he would run for the party chairman’s position, he has been criticized for being a millionaire and stakeholder of international financial capitalism. He then played down his personal wealth, as well as his role as Chairman of the Board of Blackrock, one of the most powerful finance institutions in the world.

However, the unprompted comment he let slip at the Federal press conference at the end of October paints a clearer picture: “The number of shareholders in Germany is far too small. Other countries are way ahead of us. I would like to contribute to moving forward there.” Since Blackrock is the largest provider of public funds, an indirect control of interest is hard to deny. Attentive listeners who register this comment in the context of a possible party leadership, and later Chancellor’s position, might glean from this that Friedrich Merz would like to interest the Federal citizen in shares for the future, and to bring his current employer Blackrock more influence and turnover. This comment on the side exposed a motivation of Friedrich Merz that may steer some of his decisions and actions later on.

A diplomat will merely register the comment at the time, and assign it to the resulting overall picture as a puzzle piece. He is silent, observes sharply, listens well, and performs a sober analysis. He does not evaluate, but pays full attention. He asks two questions:

  • Why is Friedrich Merz saying that?
  • And: Cui bono? Whom does what he says serve?

Listening is closely connected to mindfulness. In everyday business life, mindfulness means one thing above all: clear thinking and analysis, as well as a keen sense for developments.  Believe me, it pays more often than you may think to listen attentively and actively.

Diplomats know: Listening is worth more than talking

A Chinese wisdom is that talking is not worth as much as listening. Diplomacy has known this long ago. The economy of the future needs more diplomacy in order to create a new culture of positive communication and constructive conflict resolution.

Come to learn more about the successful strategies of diplomacy in order to use them for your everyday business life in the seminar “The art of winning gently – Successful with diplomacy”, in Zurich, on January 30 and 31, 2019. Click here for more information. You get a 20 per cent X-mas discount, if you book before December 24, 2018.


Gerlinde Manz-Christ