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  • Writer's pictureKaren White

Listening ... the Secret Sauce of Life

By Karen White

"When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new." -- The Dalai Lama


For those of you who want the executive summary, here it is. Our listening is solely our interpretation, is always biased, and is the crucial factor in the quality of our communication, relationships and life. And more often than not we aren’t aware of how we listen or even that we have choice in shaping our listening.

It is the largely invisible act in a conversation and yet it shapes our speaking, determines how influential we are able to be, the direction of the conversation, and the results that are achieved. Our listening comes from the sum of our experiences, beliefs, assumptions and judgements, and they are often not questioned in relation to how we listen.

A case in point

Early on in my coaching career I had a client who was a wonderful teacher for me in relation to my listening. My work with her helped me realise that I had a set of assumptions that influenced the direction we took in our coaching conversations. The client was part of a leadership development program in which coaching was offered as a support. When we started working together and defining what she wanted to focus on, we fell into exploring how to develop her management and leadership ability. This seemed to be appropriate given the program she was on and also the role that she was in, where she had people reporting to her and where she had said at the outset that she wanted to grow her leadership as an area of focus. Based on that our conversations naturally gravitated to her leadership and a familiar pattern emerged of her feeling challenged by what was expected of her as a leader. We were earnest in exploring various aspects of management and leadership, getting things done through others, being influential, making and managing commitments, and managing performance, to name a few areas. She was a wonderful learner and took what was offered, made sense of it, and applied what we explored together. In spite of this there wasn’t as much traction as we had wanted and I was left wondering what I was missing and what to offer next.

As our sessions progressed I started to pay more attention to what was important to her, rather than to the context of coaching and her role. I questioned my listening and how that might be influencing me, and what I was paying attention to and what I was automatically excluding in terms of what we might explore together. I was then able to ask her questions about what she wanted for herself (rather than what she did), what mattered deeply to her, what she was passionate about and where she felt she could make her best contribution. It became apparent to us that leadership – the holy grail for so many people, that was a bias in my listening too – did not interest her nearly as much as long term, strategic thinking that would make a substantial difference to the organisation. And, just by the way, be meaningful work that enlivened her in ways that management and leadership just didn’t. At our last session she shared with me that she had applied for a job that was a better match for her and that regardless of whether she got the job, she was clear that her future was in a specialist role where she could use her considerable talents to make a difference, instead of trying to be a leader and not feeling like that was enough or that she was enough.

Listening as the secret ingredient to ... well everything

When you think about language and conversations and how they happen, what comes up for you? My hunch is that what will immediately come to mind is the speaking part of the conversation, and maybe only that part of the language, which makes sense for at least two reasons. Firstly, it is the observable part of the conversation, i.e. it would show up in a video recording, and, secondly, it is the part we are socialised and taught to pay attention to. When we talk about great orators, we immediately comment on their speaking, and of course, that is important. However, if you reflect on a powerful and meaningful conversation you had what is it that made it so for you? My sense is that you will recognise that it was not the speaking that made it a unique and immersive experience, but rather the quality of attention, care and respect for self and other that made it so. This is much more about listening and a lot less about speaking.

Let's consider listening as a process, what difference might it make if we reflected on listening in this way instead of as a thing that we do. Since we are continuously engaged in listening and it is ongoing in every moment of every day, it seems to me that this is a more helpful way to observe this phenomenon. It isn’t just listening to others, it includes listening to ourselves and even interpreting silence. The power of seeing it as a process is that we can examine and observe it, since it is happening all the time and continuously informs our interpretation, our meaning and the action we take. We then do not have to be distracted to by our listening and instead are able to influence and direct our listening. The first step is being aware of what is happening in our listening and then being open to owning that it is entirely our interpretation, and not how the world is out there.

In Ontological Coaching, we talk about the three A's of listening which can be a great shorthand to reference how we listen and inquire into it. Before sharing those with you a key point to be made is that we have a deep listening, which informs these three A’s which comes from the sum of all our experiences, prior learning both tacit and overt, our her/history, culture, upbringing and socialisation. We are born into a set of meanings based on these and while our listening occurs in the moment, it is shaped and sculpted based on these meanings. Added to this, what is happening within us in any given moment regarding our emotions and moods, our self-talk and assessments, and our physiology, also play a pivotal role in our listening.

A quick example to illustrate the point. When Rodriguez (for those who don’t know about him he is an American musician who is well-known and well-loved by many South Africans) was in South Africa some years back my husband and I took a dear American friend to see him perform. She lived in California at the time and had never heard him perform. He was very engaging with the audience and got into an interaction with a woman in the audience who kept shouting “We love you, Rodriguez.” to which he replied with words like “thank you”, “that’s kind”, and “that’s nice”. After this continued a few times, he said “baie dankie” at which point my friend said, with some annoyance, how rude he was being. I was surprised and asked her what she meant to which she responded that he said “buy a donkey” to the woman and she thought that was completely out of line. At this point my husband and I started laughing, as what Rodriguez had said to the lady was “thank you” in Afrikaans (one of the official languages in South Africa), which phonetically sounds almost identical to buy a donkey. As soon as we explained this to my friend, we were all rolling about the floor laughing. She had a new interpretation of Rodriguez and what she now viewed as his thoughtfulness and kindness. It was such a perfect case in point of background listening informing what we hear and listen to, and how it completely informs how the world appears to us.

And now to the three A’s. We are Always listening and by this I mean that we listen from the interpretation that is within us. The corollary to that is we speak from that listening and we are often unaware of that. Even when there is silence we cannot not listen and that is because we make meaning of the silence - for some people too much silence feels excruciating and for others it can be a relief.

We have an Automatic listening to ourselves, to others, to the world and to situations at large. This means is that our listening just happens in the moment without any forethought or deliberation. Think about a word that you might find offensive that someone else doesn’t, and might even use freely and with relish, and you will get the picture.

And lastly we are Already listening based on our prior learning and experiences, which makes for a pre-set meaning, inbuilt assumptions, and the reality we generate, which we can consider to be the stories we live in.

What does it matter?

From an Ontological perspective we would say it matters for at least two significant reasons. Firstly, we speak to be listened to and when we are listened to deeply and with care and legitimacy, to use a current colloquial term, we are “Being Seen, Being Heard, Feeling Felt, and Getting Gotten.” An example of such listening is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was set up to begin to address the terrible inequity and atrocities that happened in Apartheid South Africa. It is a damning example of how the majority of the population in the country suffered institutionally not being listened to, with long term ramifications that are still playing out. They were systemically and systematically negated and not treated with dignity and respect that is the birth right of all human beings. Bringing deep listening and with it care in a world where many people acutely feel the absence of this, can be truly transformational and healing, and can in the moment bring about profound positive change that could otherwise not happen.

From a broad leadership perspective, if we are going to be influential our speaking is only effective when it connects with the receptiveness of the listener, what is important for them, and what they care about. When we are able to connect to someone’s listening and what matters to them so we can build trust, co-ordinate action and attain significant results that could otherwise not be achieved. Added to that, given the complex and complicated world we live in, if leaders want to make high quality decisions, they require multiple perspectives which can only be gained by listening to others and being open to the learning that comes from that.


Some would say our future as a human race appears unclear, given the growing complexity of life, wicked problems, and dire circumstances that so many people find themselves in all over the world. In spite of major technological advancements the counter to that is over many years there has been increasing turmoil, growing levels of stress and anxiety, and widening polarities the world over. There is so much noise and a cacophony of voices, often with very little editing, and it seems that if we spent less time talking and more listening, we would be better able to take care of what matters for human kind individually and collectively.

What are we to do? Instead of our listening running the show we can interrupt our habitual patterns asking ourselves some questions. Questions like:

  • In what way is my listening biased?

  • How am I listening?

  • What other interpretations and perspectives could there be?

  • What am I missing based on my listening?

  • How is my mood and how is it impacting how I’m listening?

  • What preconceived notions and ideas do I have of myself / the other person / situation?

  • What am I listening for?

Engaging in an ongoing practice of asking these kinds of questions can enhance our ability to listen well, learn from our interactions and conversations, and create meaning and a level of fulfilment that we might otherwise miss in and for our lives. As I reflect on a well-known quote by Maya Angelou - “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” - my assessment is that this is all about the quality of our listening. May you listen well and be listened to well.

Karen White is the Director of Training for the Ontological Coaching Institute. A Master Certified Coach with the ICF she is a highly sought after for executive and leadership coaching. Karen also co-leads ontological coaching and leadership programs in South Africa, Europe the UK and the USA. Prior to her involvement in coaching and coach-training, she had 20 years in the corporate world holding key leadership roles, spanning strategic and operational business areas. She can be contacted at or 27 83 455 4744.

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