IT Leadership is Listening

By Alan Carroll

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As I pointed out last month in my first article, to become a master communicator you need to first become a master listener. One of the challenges to becoming a master listener is being fully present. By filtering what is being said through your own conceptual conditioning your IT leadership abilities will be reduced.

Why is master listening critical to the success of your organization? Because the rise and fall of organizations depends on the ability of the leader to detach (at least momentarily) from past thoughts and conditioning and give space to new ideas that could very well represent the future direction the organization needs to take in order to survive.

Now, let’s explore the next step, which is learning how to detach from that conditioning and be fully present with the other person. Please remember my coaching from the first column, which was to listen from the place of possibility rather then listening from assessing, judging and comparing what I say to your database of knowledge.

When we are born we have something within us that is analogous to flash memory storage device (FMSD) or your database of knowledge. At birth, the device for the most part is empty. And then, throughout our lives, every time we experience something, learn a new idea, or gather a new fact, it is stored in our flash memory and becomes part of our identity. Psychologically speaking this FMSD can be referred to as your mind, ego, I, me or the little voice inside your head that judges and evaluates every event that occurs in your field of now.

Bear with me on this one: Have you ever observed the little voice inside your head that talks to you all day long and even in your dreams? Just close your eyes for 10 seconds and listen to the stream of thoughts flowing through your awareness.

Some people notice the voice right away and others say they don't hear it. If you didn’t hear the little voice you might have heard something like: “Voice? What little voice? I don’t hear a voice inside my head. This is a waste of time. I think I will log on to my Facebook account.” That is the little voice. The challenge we face is we are so use to the little voice inside our head that it has passed into an unaware state and we have lost our ability to observe it.

Why is being able to observe the voice, ego, I, me, mind so important to becoming a master listener? Because the voice (which is your identity speaking) interprets, filters and reacts to whatever it sees and hears. Therefore, you are not able to clearly listen to another person’s communication because your unconscious conditioning actually filters and distorts what is being communicated.

A clear example of this would be people in the 1600s who couldn’t hear Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, i.e. the Sun, not the Earth is the center of the universe, because they were threaten by it. Their FMSD, their identity, said the sun went around the earth. They were unable "to be" with and understand Copernicus.

A master listener needs to be able to place the ego aside in order to truly be present to another person’s communication. However, this level of listening is rare because it requires the ability to surrender, to give up and detach from your point of view.

The challenge with detachment is we have identified and defined who we are as our point of view. The purpose of the ego is survival and the survival of whatever it considers itself to be. If you consider yourself to be your point of view and, if true listening requires surrendering your point of view, then the ego would interpret listening without judgment as a threat to it’s psychological survival. This is why true listening, listening without judgment, seldom occurs.

An example of this identity prison would be if someone asked you the question, ”Who are you?” You would then go into your FMSD and dump out some things. A typical download might include your name, nationality, family, school, favorite football team, political views, religious orientation, core values and beliefs. These are the things you have identified yourself to be. You are so conditioned to believe that is who you are -- these things -- that you would state infallibility that this is, “Who I am!”

From the point of view of the ego you are absolutely right. You are the content of your mind. However, from the space of the being the things in your mind are an illusion, which in fact create separation and block your ability to listen without judgment.

Bill Clinton made an illuminating comment in his address to a TED audience by describing this identification with our beliefs and values as the psychological plague of our times. He suggested rather than identify with our individual values and beliefs, which keep us separate from each other, we should identify with our common humanity.

When you are being a master listener you are giving up your world of thoughts and entering into another person’s world of thoughts with they intention of understanding and recreating that person’s thoughts.

This type of listening is very powerful because you now have the ability to listen from a place of not knowing. When you listen from not knowing there is now space for any thing (not anything but any thing) to exist in your reality. You no longer resist any thing.

Let's be clear, since we are not idiots, this doesn’t mean that you accept and believe what is said to you. Not at all. However, it does mean that you are open, flexible and have the ability to fully recreate the other person’s communication. (Recreation and not knowing are major distinctions that I will continue to develop in future columns).

When your listening changes from knowing to not knowing a major shift has occurred. You are moving out of an ego reality based on knowing to a being reality based on not knowing. The master listener is able to listen from the space of being. A space without thought. In other words, a space in which you, the ego, is not present.

Therefore, when Copernicus said the earth goes around the sun the master listener would respond by saying, “I have always thought the sun went around the earth, why, Copernicus, do you believe the earth goes around the sun?” You are now listening from the space of not knowing. You are giving Copernicus’ communication the space to exist in your reality.

I would like to end with a short exercise designed to develop not-knowing listening: The next time someone is presenting their viewpoint, say to yourself that there is a possibility, a truth or value to what this person is saying. Try to hear that possibility, truth or value. What you will discover is if you listen for possibility, truth and value you are opening yourself up to universal awareness, which is beyond the finite limits of your ego mind.

Alan Carroll is the author of The Broadband Connection: The Art of Delivering a Winning IT Presentation and the founder of Alan Carroll and Associates. He has been a successful public speaker, sales trainer and corporate consultant since 1983. Clients include: Cisco Systems, Synoptics Communications, Symantec Corporation, Digital Equipment Corporation, Unocal Corporation, Covey Leadership Center, BP Chemical, Peak Technologies, Vantive Corporation, Jet Propulsion Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, HP, Symbol Technologies, etc.