The importance of feedback and empathic listening in today’s world

By Richi Gil
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In this sixth episode of the Conscious Conversations series, Richi Gil discusses six questions about the importance of feedback and empathic listening in today’s world.

We will dive deeper into exploring the power that feedback has inside an organization and also the different levels of listening.

Below you can watch to the full conversation:

Below you can watch the short videos with the different questions:

What is feedback and how does it work?

What is empathic listening? Are there any tools that can help us develop the skills?

How can these practices support business performance?

Can you connect this topic to a company’s innovation capability?

How can this impact the overall performance?

How could you tell that a company operates using these practices?

Transcription

Benjamin:

Welcome to the Conscious Conversations series. This is episode six, and today I’m speaking with Richi Gil, one of Axialent’s founding partners and master facilitator. Richi works with senior leaders and their teams, coaching and facilitating processes that helps these teams significantly improve their own and their organization’s performance. He’s also a culture expert and helps clients develop the behaviors, symbols, and systems required to accomplish the desired business strategies. Richi is an intense sportsman and has participated in several international marathons holding 3:05hs mark in the 26.2 miles. Richi works at integrating the physical, cognitive, and spiritual realms that lead to a successful and balanced life. In today’s episode we’ll talk about the importance of feedback and empathic listening in today’s world. What is feedback on how does it work?

Richi Gil:

Hello Benja. Hi everyone. It’s really nice to participate in this series of Conscious Conversations, and I would like to start responding the question with a question myself. Imagine somebody ever told you or tells you, “I have some feedback to offer.” What is the immediate reaction? “I’m sure he has something bad to tell me.” We have gotten used to the fact that the practice of feedback is to point out that which is missing, that which an opinion of the feedback giver is wrong, wrongly thought, wrongly executed, wrongly reasoned, wrong conclusions, et cetera, but fundamentally there is something wrong with the feedback. That’s why among others, the culture of feedback does not have a very good reputation in our organizations. On the one hand, we say that we want and we value a culture of feedback. Further along, I will speak a little bit more about these being the espoused values, what we say we want, but in practice we avoided it in a conscious way because we believe that we want to maintain a good relationship with our colleagues because we appreciate our colleagues. We avoid having feedback conversations.

Richi Gil:

What we think is that if we don’t expose them, then they will not expose us, but in that process the company suffers, business suffers, relationship suffers, and we ourselves, we don’t feel proud of what we do. In the current world of constant, of constant acceleration, I believe that the best way to create an inspiring culture, a culture of openness, a culture of simplicity where learning becomes the norm and not the exception. Creating a culture of feedback is critical, and for that to be possible, we need to learn how to have feedback conversations. For that, you need to create a culture where it is not only allowed, but even it’s expected. It’s a norm that somebody that observes something feels that it is desirable, it’s the best thing to do, to speak about it with your colleagues, being them your equals or your superiors in an organization.

Richi Gil:

As I said before, in general, companies talk about the highlights or the good things of feedback, and I said before that these are the espoused values. What is being said? What normally happens is that when somebody raises his or her hand to speak about the issue, in the best of cases he’s received with indifference, and in the worst cases, even with hostility. This sends a metamessage about the feedback, and this is feedback is not welcome. I call this values in action. What is lived in practice? This lack of alignment between espoused values and values in action creates contradiction in organizations, and worse is when you cannot even speak about those contradictions. This is great what Chris Argyris calls organization schizophrenia. People receive two messages, in appearance contradictory, but what’s worse is that you cannot even speak about the contradiction. My experience as a consultant, working with organizations of all types in different geographies, this is a lot more common than you would think.

Benjamin:

Given your experience, do you see that in today’s businesses there’s a gap between espoused values and values in action?

Richi Gil:

Well, yes. In my experience there is a difference. There is a gap, and I will explain why that gap happens. I don’t believe that people have bad intentions. On the contrary, I believe in general, most of the leaders with whom I have worked really good intentions. They want to do things well. They value their colleagues. They want to have a good relationship with them because they work with them. They spend more hours with them than with their beloved ones. So many times, because they don’t want to put that a risk, that relationship, they avoid having conversations that would help solving problems, but I want to tell you as those leaders, for example, if they believe that having feedback conversations is important for the business, for the relationship, for the performance, then they will all say yes. I would say it’s rather very unlikely, almost impossible that a leader will say he doesn’t believe in feedback conversations.

Richi Gil:

Now when you move into practice, which is the today in your organizations, you find tons of topics that are not being addressed, topics that become what we call the elephants in the room, but you know that moves under the table that everybody sees and nobody speaks about. This is because they don’t want to put those relationships at risk. There is a belief that if I speak about the topic, the relationship is going to go south. It’s going to deteriorate, and since that relationship is very important, very valuable to me, then the topic is the one that suffers.

Benjamin:

What is empathic listening? Are there any tools that can help us develop the skills?

Richi Gil:

Well, yes. When we speak about feedback conversations in companies, one of the elements of the feedback conversation is learning how to listen, and learning how to listen seems obvious because all of us believe that we listen from the day we are born. Actually, we have two ears and supposedly we listen, and I believe that what happens is that we hear songs, we hear stories, but we don’t necessarily listen, per se. As I say, this element is critical in feedback conversations, and I would like to offer a possible model to interpret listening, which is the model Otto Scharmer he uses when he speaks about innovation and how to learn from the future. Otto Scharmer defines in his a book, Theory U, four levels of listening. The first level is the one that we normally use. We call it listening from habit, which is what we already know, and when somebody tells us a story, we are filtering it through what we have learned, what we know, and if that story meets our own filters, we accept it. If it doesn’t meet our filters, we reject the story or we respond with the arguments that go against that story.

Richi Gil:

So we try to win over the other person. We try to solve it in our own way. So we are listening from habit, actually to reconfirm what we believe we already know. Then there is a second level that Otto Scharmer defines in listening, which is listening for facts, but listening out of curiosity, listening to what we’re being told and that is a typical methodology and a scientific methodology where we are constantly holding hypothesis theories, but we’re not attached to the theory or the hypothesis. We need to just confirm the hypothesis through this confirming evidence. In that level of listening, we listen to what’s being said, and there could be data that we didn’t know before and that challenges or that puts at risk what the story we believe we have. In that case, we have the openness of mind to include those new data in our story to create a new narrative, a new model that may be different from before.

Richi Gil:

This is a second level of listening, listening for facts. Then there is a third level of listening, and here I am starting to answer your question. You were asking about empathic listening, which is precisely what Otto Scharmer calls listening with an open heart, listening with empathy, listening from the inside. Empathic listening is to see how the world looks through the eyes of the other, to think that if I were him, if I had his experiences, his own stories, today I would be having exactly the same experience, the same view as my interlocutor. How would things look like? How do things look? Exactly how the person who am I speaking to is seeing those things. I can feel what she feels. I can see and have the intuition that she has. Empathic listening allows a deep connection with the other at the same time. I’m not letting go of my opinions of my stories, of what I believe, I am simply connecting with the other and trying to understand how what the other sees or feels can be exactly the way the other is relating to me.

Richi Gil:

This allows a much deeper connection and creates a field of listeners, and after that exchange, in my opinion, you can become a lot more creative and a lot more innovative when you’re speaking, when you are listening from that level, and then you have a fourth level of listening, which is the deepest of all, and it means how can we create a field between us? How can we listen to the field? How can we listen from the field, and in a way listen from a future that is trying to emerge? This is a really deep level of listening, and it many times happens when we encounter a problem that we cannot solve, and then we relax, we start breathing, we enter an almost meditative state, and suddenly the solution appears. That is what Otto Scharmer calls listening from the will and listening from the field. This opens a space for something to emerge.

Benjamin:

Is there a way to get to those levels, especially the third and the fourth level? They could sound and a little bit abstract or challenging to put in practice depending on where we are at the moment. How do you see that?

Richi Gil:

Well, I think there are, as I say, different levels of listening, and the deeper you go, the more empathy you can build with your counterpart, and even listening from the field opens the space to listen, as I say, for the future that’s trying to emerge. Now as everything, Benja, the key is not to listen from those levels, but how can you become the person that can listen from those levels? Once you become that person, empathic listening can seem obvious, but for example, if you enter the conversation with a mental model of curiosity, a mental model of vulnerability, being aware that you have a limited perception of the world and being aware that the other can have access to data information, different stories from yours that can be as valuable as yours, then it will be very, very easy for you to enter that space of empathic resonance.

Richi Gil:

Now, if you can’t become that kind of person, it will be extremely difficult and challenging. You are going to be listening from habit or from the outside, simply filtering the stories, and when you are in that kind of mental model, the mental model of certainty, as we call it, the mental model or of the knower, the other has basically nothing to offer because you’re not looking to learn. You’re just looking to validate what you already know. So it would be practically impossible to enter a field of resonance with the other person. There is nothing I have to get from the other because my stories are already self-sealing. They’re complete. As I say, it’s really challenging. So our quest working with clients is to help them become the kind of person that can listen and can create a field of empathic resonance. That’s the most challenging part.

Benjamin:

How can these practices support business performance?

Richi Gil:

Well, I think as you create the habits of feedback or listening with empathy and you can build the habit and you can change and you can shift the concert. There is another book that I really appreciate, which is called Atomic Habits. The author is James Clear. He speaks about the fact that there are certain indicators that are a reflect of your habits, whether these are healthy or unhealthy. For example, your body weight. It’s a lagging indicator of your nutrition habits, of your exercise. Your cognitive knowledge is a lagging indicator of your reading habits, for example. Your tidiness or untidiness is a lagging indicator of your habits of cleaning and tidiness habits, so to speak. So you obtain basically what you repeat. The feedback conversations work in exactly the same way.

Richi Gil:

They become part of the culture and they become a habit. So it’s not having a feedback conversation once, such as happens in almost every company. I know that they have once a year performance reviews or conversations where you get together with your boss and each team member gets feedback on his performance for the year. To create a culture of feedback, the feedback conversations need to happen over and over again. For that purpose, to reinforce the performance and to reinforce what we call the impersonal dimension of the company and achieve the business results we are looking for, these conversations are really, really meaningful, and for that purpose, when I work with teams and my clients and to everybody that might be listening this podcast, I suggest that the bias of the conversation has to start on a positive note and I want to explain this.

Richi Gil:

I recommend that whenever you start a feedback conversation, you have a commanding comment about some behavior or aspect that we really appreciate in the other. I think that this positive outlook creates a conversation that is bound to be collaborative. For example, two questions that trigger a good feedback conversation, and I do this with my clients in the workshops, is to share two questions. The root of the first question is, “Something that I appreciate about you is …” and you complete the sentence. You have to say something that you appreciate about the other person. The second question is, “Something that would be help me to better collaborate with you is …” and then you complete the stem of the sentence. What you give the person here is feedback on something that’s he or she could do that would help you to create a more collaborative relationship.

Richi Gil:

Let me give you a very concrete example that may illustrate this point. Imagine this conversation we are having that we have been planning for some time already. If I had to give you feedback on this process, on how we got ready for this conversation, I would say for example, “Something I appreciate about you, Benja, is the discipline and the rigor that you have followed to prep this conversation. You have sent me reminders. You have made sure that this was in my calendar. You know I’m very busy with clients, coming and going, traveling. It would have been very easy for me that this would have slipped my mind, slipped my agenda, and then forget about it. However, you have had the discipline to remind me. So I want to really appreciate this, that you really, really helped me to prepare this conversation. It would not have happened without that.”

Richi Gil:

So for example, that would have been the answer to the first question. The second question, “Something that would help me for us to collaborate better in the future is that we should have done this recording last week. However, you and I had a different understanding of what we were committing to do, and we realized when we came to the conversation that I believed it was a prepping conversation and you believed it was the actual conversation that we were going to have at that moment, and we both realized in that moment that we had not been clear enough about how could we arrive to that conversation with the same understanding of what was going to happen in that conversation. What will help me corporate better with you in this future is that when we finish the conversation, we allocate a few moments to make sure that we both understood the same about the next steps.” That’ll be, as I say, an example applied to how you and I prepped conversation and that illustrates what a good feedback conversation could look like. Does that help?

Benjamin:

Yes. Perfect. Great. Can you connect this topic to a company’s innovation capability?

Richi Gil:

Well, I absolutely connect it. A culture of innovation for me requires that people are willing to say what they think, are willing to have constructive disagreements, are willing to learn from one another, are willing to show vulnerability in the face of the unknown, are willing to not take things personally and look at things lightly, to explore, to be wrong. A culture of innovation is built on testing and error, and overall see what works, what doesn’t work. Learn fast, correct fast, and try something else. This is impossible if we can’t have open conversations where we can show what do we have to contribute, and also to accept that we have blind spots.

Richi Gil:

There are things we don’t know or we haven’t even thought about. A condition for a culture of innovation is to recognize ourselves as the thinkers of our ideas and not as our ideas, per se, because when we morph or when we melt into our ideas, the argument about who’s right is like a fight for survival, because we are our idea. In a context where what we’re going to do is to repeat what we have done in the past, it’s going to be very difficult to create something new, something that didn’t exist in the past. So coming back to your question, I think it’s a critical precondition to have good feedback conversations to practice empathic listening to create a culture of innovation. I don’t believe it’s a sufficient condition, but it’s an absolutely necessary condition for innovation.

Benjamin:

How can this impact the overall performance?

Richi Gil:

I spoke quite a lot before on how these practices can impact the company’s performance, and how for creating a culture of innovation, these are critical. Now one of the models that we offer to our clients is to look at their business performance through a filter or a model that creates some additional distinctions to the distinction of the business, per se. We call that the impersonal dimension of the business, the eighth dimension, and then we have the additional dimensions of the we or inter personnel, and then the personal dimension or the dimension of the I. So the feedback conversations, the conversations out of curiosity, as we said before, can have an impact not only on the IT, but also an unbelievable impact in the we and the I dimensions, in that for example, in the we dimension, open conversations, feedback conversations, as I explained before, conversations that speak not only about how much I appreciate the other, but what would help me to collaborate better with the other creates conditions of trust, mutual respect, solidarity, mutual appreciation.

Richi Gil:

Where if someone from the team falls down or hits a bump in the road, other people are going to extend a helping hand, and they will help each other, they will not let somebody sink in the middle of the river. They will extend always a helping hand. Then, if you know that, people will be more willing to take risks because they know they’re holding each other’s backs. There’s trust, there’s credibility, there’s respect, and there is admiration for the other. In the interpersonal level, there’s also a virtuous circle that helps the performance of the company in general and that becomes part of the impersonal processes.

Richi Gil:

At the level of the I, on the personal level, it creates leaders that are in flow, inspire, are happy about what they’re trying to accomplish in their job, and many times I speak about the fact that we spend in our work much more hours than we’re with our beloved ones, and we have an incredible incentive to make those hours count, to make those hours of flow where we’re doing something of service or of a purpose or a noble purpose and we’re making an impact in the world. I love to speak about the impact Axialent is making in the world in the sense that our purpose, our noble purpose is to help individuals, teams, and organizations to connect to the true nature and to express it skillfully. That means having practices, feedback, conversations that are more conscious, and that in the long term have a positive impact not only in the business, but also in the world.

Richi Gil:

So making a long story short and going back to your question, I believe that in every area of the company, in the impersonal dimension as well as in the inter personnel and the personal dimension, feedback conversations, empathic listening, looking at the other person with benevolent eyes can have … having a presumption of good intent, looking with curiosity, all that contributes, no doubt, to the pursuit of the mission and the purpose in a religious way.

Benjamin:

How could you tell that a company operates using these practices?

Richi Gil:

Well that’s an interesting question. Sometimes we run an exercise with our clients where we run a kind of guided visualization where they imagine they are finishing this day in the workshop, they go to sleep, and then during the night and while they’re asleep, a miracle happens, and they obviously don’t know because they’re asleep. The miracle is that the ideal culture, everything that they aspire to create as a virtuous culture in the company becomes true just by miracle. That’s the exercise, and as I say, they don’t know because they’re asleep. So the visualization continues, inviting them to visualize that they wake up and then they go back to the company the next day for a normal day of work and then they start to see things that yesterday were not there, but they are there today, and again I remind them that they actually don’t know that a miracle happened during the night, and then we ask them, “What would be different? What would lead you to believe that something happened during the night?” This company is not the same company that you encountered, that you worked in yesterday.

Richi Gil:

So we use some guiding questions such as, “How would leaders look at each other? How would people treat each other? How would conversations happen? How would people make agreements?” And what we hear from our clients is absolutely incredible, because what they say is that there would be a spirit of happiness in the company, people would smile to each other. This seems foolish, but the fact that seeing people smile … sometimes I work in companies where you look at peoples’ faces and they look like they’re dead. They’re not really smiling. Everybody has a circumspect of face. They seem they’re carrying a three ton weight on their shoulders. People would feel lighter, as I say. They would be smiling, they would be having open conversations. There would be very eloquent and intense debate around the topics, but this would not affect the relationship between the people because the level of trust, the level of respect, the level of trust and agreement about who we are and how we show up would allow any level of debate with any level of intensity be at the service of the purpose, of the service or what you are trying to accomplish as a team.

Richi Gil:

The subsystems of each member, the functional areas, so to speak, would be supported in a way to what’s best for the global system. Everybody would be sub-optimizing his own subsystem as a service of the purpose. It sounds simple, and as we say to our clients, it is simple. It’s not easy, because we all have … we see our companies that are client companies, that everybody has their own stories. Now what’s wonderful about this process is that it allows little by little to be free from that load and to connect to the wonder of being creating something that’s valuable for others that is at the service to improving the lives of other people in the world. That’s what life will look like in a company that has managed to establish, as I say, a conscious practice every day, where it has become habit, an atomic habit, like James Clear says that it create extraordinary change.

 

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