Sit There and Listen

March 11, 2010 //

By Pia Infante

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.    (Margaret Wheatley)

This quote brings to mind the quality of presence that John has cultivated over the years at the Whitman Institute. I’ve often reflected that the space here – simple, humble, open, with big glass doors that overlook trees and invite sky into the room – is now infused with the quality of Listening.  

Listening is often described as an act. Perhaps it is also a quality in a person, a room, a gathering, or an approach.

Deceptively simple, listening is not always easy. The Coaches Training Institute identifies three levels of listening: internal, focused, and environmental. Internal listening gives attention to the ongoing discussion within our own person – observations, plans, anxieties, and questions. Focused listening refers to giving attention to a person, absorbing without responding (much like Margaret Wheatley describes above). Environmental listening is expanding our attention to everything – the sounds, the energy in the space, and the flow of the world – in and around the conversation.

It seems to me that high quality relationships, gatherings, and approaches often integrate focused and environmental listening with ease, while creating space for any necessary self-disclosures about internal listening.  

I wonder how a
Listening Indicator (note: I just made this up, but please educate me if it exists in a parallel universe) could be of use, particularly for those in the practice of meeting and conversation design. 

Listening Indicator might ask the following questions:

What was the quality of Listening in that conversation or meeting? 

What is the quality of Listening in this partnership?

What is the quality of Listening in this organization?

A potential scale for the
Listening Indicator could be: 1 (Sparse – Evident that very little Listening has actually taken place. Distraction. Lack of Attentiveness. No Demonstrated Curiosity.) to 5 (Full – Evident that Listening has taken place. Attentiveness. Checking for understanding. Engaged Presence.)

Writing this post has me wondering about the quality of my own listening – whether on a conference call or at the dining table. And wondering, for all of us who design meetings and scaffold dialogue, how do we co-create the conditions for the highest quality of Listening in every setting?

As always, your reflections and questions are welcome here.  We are listening.


  1. Christopher on April 19, 2010 at 11:04 am

    hi Pia, your lovely essay was quite thought-provoking. I must say that I'm not sure if I totally buy into Wheatley's functional definition of fully engaged and present listening as one in which "(w)e just have to be willing to sit there and listen." This may at times constitute attentive listening, but there needs to be more elaboration of what would constitute an appropriate response. Sometimes it might be a hug, or nodding one's head, or an elaborate reply, maybe at others a tear, or stoicism, or direct action of some sort.
    Moreover, I'm not sure if I totally am comfortable with the 'Listening Indicator' criteria, because it has such a charged and even intimidating element of judgmentalism. I know, for instance, when engaging with children in inquiry, it is notoriously difficult to discern when they are fully attentive. They may fidget and squirm and play and prattle — leading to scolding from an adult, who does not get that they can somehow manage to listen totally to what is being said, and do so best when they are allowed a bit of free reign to just be kids. People of different ages (and in different cultures) listen in very different ways, and we have to be careful that our 'attentiveness indicators' are mindful of this.
    How do we know when someone is listening well? Can a person be expert at feigning presence, yet really have his mind somewhere else while leading us to believe we have his undivided attention? What if we want our listener to respond to our heartfelt sharing, and he does not deem it apropos? Or what if he responds, but not in the way we had hoped?
    Well, just a few scattered thoughts and questions on a most important subject, to continue the conversation!

  2. The Whitman Institute on April 19, 2010 at 11:15 am


    Mmmmm… Thank you for your nuanced take on listening – and introducing the notion that the demonstration of listening looks different at times, for different people (of different ages, cultures, proclivities, etc.), at any given time. I'm gratified that you heard my clarion call for a some deeper discussion on what is this quality? How might we encourage it well?

    Your example of engaging children in inquiry reminds me of a conversation that often happens in group settings about how an individual might be drawing, or knitting, or doing something with their hands. Others in the group might request that other activities be "put aside" because it distracts them and/or there is an expectation that focused or attentive listening "looks like" all eyes on speaker(s) and bodies still. In those moments, there appear to be competing preferences and, also, understandings of what listening really looks like.

    Your comments have me musing on how the convener or facilitator of meetings (particularly ones that involve the same group of people over time, where there are always an array of needs/understandings of what respectful attention looks like) calls the question. Perhaps instead of ground rules or instating a listening indicator, it might be much more interesting to simply ask a group ~ How do you listen? How do we demonstrate listening? How do we know you are listening? Re-affirming for me that conversation around an open-ended question can open the way for more understanding, connection, and depth.

    I appreciate your ongoing curiosity, care, and sharing, Chris! Thanks.

  3. Christopher on April 22, 2010 at 6:05 am

    hi Pia, I'd tried to post a follow-on comment about a higher order type of listening I posited called 'caring listening,' in which one offers a heartfelt response to what has been said to him (even if it's not the response expected or desired), but it doesn't look like it made it to the blog.
    Anyway, I was also thinking about listening, presence and cyberspace. There may well be those who've read very carefully your initial posting, but did not respond to it with a comment of their own. They would have been following Wheatley's tenet (applied to cyberspace) of just sitting there and listening. But how would you know if they'd read it, really 'attended' to it, if they didn't say something? Does the cyberspace medium, then, demand some sort of written response, if we are to acknowledge or 'prove' our cyber-presence, and are indeed listening? I also wonder if the same goes for face-to-face interactions. How do we know someone has genuinely heard us? At least in face-to-face interactions, we can demonstrate via other gestures — from nodding our heads, to making utterances such as 'hmmmm,' to remaining stoic but nonetheless appearing attentive (even if we aren't) — that we are 'there,' but the choices seem more limited in cyberspace. I'd love to know what others think. Just some early-morning thoughts!! 🙂 Chris

  4. Pia on April 22, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Hi Chris,

    Didn't see your post about "caring listening" sorry! We are moderating comments these days, so it's strange that I didn't see it at all. Please share again, if you care to!

    I like your question about cyberspace presence-ing. Of course, I never assume anybody out there is actually reading! Though Edd Conboy once noted that folks do not often/always comment after reading a blog post.

    Would be nice to have some kind of chalk tally on the side ~ dots or checks that connote folks having come by and read the piece… Thanks for initiating conversation and momentum!