Thanks to the popularity of Theory U Labs, many coaches know about the term ‘generative listening’. They think they know what it means, yet struggle when they have to explain what it means, let alone how to generatively listen.
The simple truth is that we are not conditioned to listen generatively. We are not even conditioned to listen empathetically, its inferior cousin. All we do is to express sympathy as a mode of social etiquette. This sympathy contains within it both the assumed ‘downloaded’ belief that we know what the other is experiencing, and also the inherent curiosity to find out more about the suffering of the other.
When we listen empathetically, we are effectively standing in the shoes of the other, experiencing what the other is experiencing. It is not about saying ‘I know how you feel’ or ‘I know how much you are suffering’, with no idea of what is triggering the other person. Empathy, to be effective requires exploration; it requires an energy connection to emotionally feel what the other is sensing, feeling and experiencing. It requires vulnerability and courage. It is not easy at all.
What passes for empathy is mostly sympathy, expressed semantically differently. How many of us would really like to sit or stand in the shoes of someone who is really suffering, let alone walk in them? It would make us uncomfortable, anxious, and often unhappy about the situation we are in.
Empathy requires compassion. It requires a feeling of responsibility for someone truly helpless. I find it easy to be empathetic to my granddaughter as I listen to the problems she may be facing at school. I can share her anxiety and her pain.
To be empathetic to another person, you truly need to love that person, unconditionally and with positive regard, as Carl Rogers says. In that space of empathy, one can be simple, authentic and congruent. One can be with no judgment; no preconceived feelings and thoughts, inspired by the sheer love for that other.
A picture that comes to mind is a picture of mothers in many parts of Africa and India carrying their babies on their back or on their chest, skin touching skin in makeshift cloth cradles. This allows them to kinesthetically experience what the baby does and anticipate the needs of the baby whether pain, hunger or the need to go.
Empathy needs the sensory connection beyond mere listening; it needs sensing and feeling deeply that takes one beyond the mind-body space into energy.
Being generative is beyond empathy just as future is beyond past and present. I am not merely sensing what the person has gone through and what the person is now. I ought to be able to understand and feel what that person wishes to be in a future state of empowerment. In my granddaughter’s case, I not only share her anxiety and her pain, and as well her felt need to overcome the pain and anxiety. I can sense what she wishes to be. I can visualize what she wants to become.
You may ask, is that even possible? The answer is a resounding yes, if you care enough, if you love enough, if you are compassionate enough.
Being generative is more than listening, sensing, feeling and thinking; it is envisioning – sometimes of a state that the other is not even aware of, a potential that is not yet matched by any performance. You may ask, is that even possible? The answer is a resounding yes, if you care enough, if you love enough, if you are compassionate enough.
In this state of generative visioning, as Scharmer says, the coach can perceive the emerging future for the client into a state she may barely deem possible limited by disempowering beliefs.
A generative coach needs to be aware, confident, trusting and willing to fail. The coach needs to be congruent in thoughts, emotions and actions completely in alignment with the felt needs of the client to generate a vision that may still not be in the client radar.
In Carl Roger’s framework of client centricity, the interaction works effectively when an incongruent client meets a congruent coach, who is empathetic and imbued with unconditional positive regard. An incongruent client is beset and troubled by limiting beliefs, with needs not seemingly in line with reality. The congruent coach is able to sense, feel and see what the client does not as her strengths, which would take her where she wishes to journey.
This is the generative transformation that a client should experience in a coaching journey, beyond the curious and empathetic exploration of unconscious limiting beliefs.