4 Fields of Listening: To God, to Others and to Self

Posted by on Aug 31, 2021 in Blog | 10 comments

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Most of us prefer to be listened to than to listen. However, as is often noted, God made us with two ears and one mouth, perhaps indicating that we should listen twice as much as we talk. Are there ways to listen that are more rewarding and which might tempt us to lean in to what others are saying, rather than impatiently waiting for our turn to dominate the conversation? C. Otto Scharmer (of “Theory U” fame) suggests that there are four fields of listening, and in this post I’d like to very loosely interact with his ideas, applying them to how we listen to God, to others and to our own self.

Note that Schamer talks about “fields” of listening. We might be tempted to think of them as levels of listening, and in some ways they are, but that implies a hierarchy, and each field is appropriate in certain settings. Here are the four:

  1. Downloading
  2. Factual
  3. Empathic 
  4. Generative

Roughly speaking, here is what he means by each.

Downloading listening, or what I think of as mechanical listening, is when we listen from habit, listening out for views which reconfirm our own, and filtering out those that don’t. Your attention isn’t really on what the other person is saying, but more on your own inner state. Even while the other person is speaking, you are thinking about what to say in reply. You are listening to find an entry point to introduce your own ideas, often doing so in a way that makes you sound (in your opinion) a little smarter than the other person. While the backbone of much polite conversation, this kind of listening doesn’t get us far. At best it is conventional, but it is not curious or challenging, nor is it intended to help you to genuinely encounter the other person. In reality, it is not about listening, but about finding entry points into conversations, and passing the time – pleasantly but forgetably. Our conversation flows from opinions long formed, or we tell stories we have often told. Our lives don’t really interact at any significant level, but these conversations reinforce our ideas and opinions as we hear our voice speak them out again and again.

Factual listening as the name suggests, is about data and letting the facts speak to us. It requires us to suspend judgement, to listen to the argument or the evidence, and to at least partially open our mind. That might be difficult to do at the start, because our opinion on the matter might have already been shaped (anti-vaccinators are…), but when we engage in factual listening we make an attempt to allow the evidence to shape our response, though our prior attitudes might well determine what we allow to pass as evidence. For example, if a person expresses a view similar to our own we might allow an anecdotal recollection to pass as hard evidence, whilst we would require a more rigorous argument if the “facts” are not to our liking. You’ve probably noticed in some conversations that select people are allowed “get out of jail free” cards, while others are interrogated more suspiciously, and this is often about how closely their interpretation of the facts sits with our own (I don’t need to grill you, because I know you are right, even if you have not presented the case optimally). Primarily, this form of listening is the listening of curious minds. We find a topic of mutual interest, and explore the data surrounding it. It is a meeting of minds, which might lead us to be affably disposed towards the other person (I see that we think alike). Although we probably have not met with them at any significant emotional depth, we might well have left the door open for deeper levels of communication in the future.

Empathic listening sees us switch from mind to heart, and to see what is being spoken about (or experienced) through the eyes of the other. This is the start of deeper listening, as we move out of our own world, and enter into the world of the other. We use our feelings and we notice the other person more closely. We detect the emotion with which they speak. We sense what is left unsaid, what might be too difficult to say. Because words can get in the way at such times, we are careful with the words we use and will often sit in silence, simply being with the other person, rather than shaping the encounter. We hold a space for them, and are deeply respectful of how they opt to navigate this space. We might prod a little, to show we are comfortable in this zone and are willing to go deeper, but we will do so cautiously, remembering that our role is to listen deeply, not to set the agenda. This can be a life transforming experience – not just for the one being listened to, but the one privileged enough to hear, and in some small way to help carry, the story of another. It is not about rushing to find solutions (for our stories are mysteries to be lived, not problems to be solved), but about ensuring that no one journeys alone. When your story is heard, and held and valued by another, you are no longer alone. For deep friendships to form, the empathy will go both ways. No, it won’t be tidily measured out, for true care for another keeps no record of who has spoken the most, but it does mean that if you allow me into your life, I won’t hold you at a distance, for I am not your professional counsellor, but your friend.

Generative listening is the field of listening often linked to Scharmer. It is a form of listening that allows space for something new to be born. It is, as it were, listening to the future, and what we are called to become. It differentiates between our current self and our ideal self – what we would look like if we became all we have been made to be. It paints a portrait of what could be, and asks what I might need to do differently to allow that self to emerge. It might be listening that I do for myself, it might be listening someone else helps me to do, or it might be listening that I help someone else to do. Often it is about personal listening, though in Scharmer’s work it is also about institutional listening – helping organisations to listen to the call of the future and the world they could help shape. For Christian people it can be eschatological listening – listening in the light of all that God plans for us and the Universe – and asking in what way we might answer Jesus’ prayer, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is about listening so deeply, that new possibilities emerge. Put differently, we potentially generate a new future when we listen in this field.

I said I’d try to apply this to how we listen to God, to others and to our own self. Rather than provide tidy answers, I’ll ask a few suggestive questions, and I imagine you will be able to think of others.

  1. How would our church life be impacted if we moved from primarily operating in the field of “downloading” (this is our faith, this is what should be believed) to engaging in curious (“factual”) conversations about new ways of expressing our humanity in the light of new possibilities that lie before us, and how does our ancient (but ever relevant) faith speak into these new possibilities?
  2. What if we shifted gears from “downloading” to “empathy” when people speak about their struggles – moving from “we know what you should do. Are you going to do it?” to “what is it like to be you? Can I walk with you for a while?” 
  3. What if we tapped into the empathy of God? What if we sensed what happens in the heart of God when news breaks about Afghanistan or Myanmar? How does God feel when another extreme weather event tells the story of our abuse of the planet God entrusted to us?
  4. What if we allowed our eschatology to be generative, and we listened to the teaching of Jesus in such a way that it transformed our present practice?

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Thanks for that, Brian. Very helpful

    • Thanks Terry. Always good to hear from you. Thanks also for the great devotions you post.

  2. Excellent article. Thank you for writing and distributing it.

    Last year I ran a workshop on mental health for evangelical Christians. I sought what they learnt through feedback forms at the end of the session. The most widespread response people gave was that they learnt that they need to listen more. “Be quick to listen…” (James 1:19). There appears to be a need to improve the listening skills of evangelical Christians.

    It also implications for evangelism and missions. You might the most well crafted gospel message, but if the recipient is not a good listener ithe gospel is not heard…

    • Thanks Kim. Yes, I guess we are usually confident that we have something to say, but don’t take seriously that the other person may have something to say to us, and that what we say might be very different once we have listened deeply.

      • Yes agreed Brian. I guess we have cognitive schemas of how the world and God is and when it is very different to the schema, it is good if we listen and potentially adjust those schemas, however difficult and challenging.

        • God is Intereted in truth… As Jesus said he is the truth…

  3. I have a friend in White Rock, B.C. with whom I experienced generative listening – if I understand the term correctly. When we worked and planned together, it resulted in something bigger, much deeper, more exciting than either of us could have thought or planned on our own. It is a most exciting and rewarding way to listen.

    • Nothing like being in a creative space with someone else and you both start to dream and aim higher.

  4. Thanks Brian. Pertinent as we navigate our way through the tricky shoals of covid vaccination conversations!

    • Yes, I also thought it was helpful as we navigate increasingly complex and often polarising conversations.


  1. 4 Fields of Listening: To God, to Others and to Self - Vose Seminary - […] post 4 Fields of Listening: To God, to Others and to Self appeared first on Brian […]

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