#9 What's Your Favorite Color? Blue or Blue?

Listening proves an elusive practice. At home, just as in society, questions never are what they seem. Questioning my own questions, I found the fears that undermine my best intentions toward others. It turns out that it takes unconditional trust to listen.

#9 What's Your Favorite Color? Blue or Blue?

I have found beautiful practices of listening in even in the most unlikely communities like slums or prisons. At home, meanwhile, such listening proved elusive to me despite all my best intentions. So, I began to question my own questions. What I learned is just how easy it is to disguise our fears and needs for control and domination as acts of listening. It was the 'Saturday Question' that brought it all home to me.

By now, I have written plenty about the dangers of not listening, not stepping back and opening up to new ideas. That's how we kept prisoners for generations from having a say in their rehabilitation journeys. That's how we sidelined the poorest slum-dwellers or waste pickers as we planned better futures. The price: millions of people suffer. And we are getting no closer to really improving our lives. Seeing all this, I began to look at my relationship with my daughters in a new light. Am I the prison governor in their young lives? And if I am, have I come around to truly listening to them like Kevin Reilly did in Pentonville Prison?

The Fraught Saturday Question

Take Saturday mornings. Usually, I would start the day by asking my daughters what they would like to plan for the day. Instead of answering, they would roll their eyes. I, in turn, would be quietly (but visibly) annoyed. They, in turn, would wait for me to grudgingly leave them alone. But when asked by their friends, I also heard them answer the same question with plenty of chatter and joy. What was going on here? It was User Voice who gave me a new perspective. Prison officials couldn't listen to prisoners because they were too afraid to speak openly to authorities with complete power over their lives (see Story #1). Something about the way my daughters rolled their eyes reminded me of prisoners avoiding answers to questions from probation officers. In prison, and as ex-offenders outside, they felt it was too risky to share difficult truths with people who wielded so much power over them. Was it possible, that the same thing I observed in a prison played out in my home?

Rolling their eyes, I began to realize, really was the only answer they could give. My daughters knew that my question was insincere even before I did. Had I not, over time, loaded my seemingly innocent question with unspoken expectations? We all knew that I wasn't open to whatever they might say, but that I wanted them to propose something meaningful. Meaningful, by my definition, meant going to a museum, an exhibition, a walk, a hike, make or build something, draw or paint together. Answering my question carried an explosive risk because I was their father, and held so much power over them. From the perspective of a child, was their fear of not meeting my expectations really so different from the fear prisoners experience about answering questions by prison authorities? Asked by me, this question was no more than a thinly veiled threat. And it did nothing to build their confidence, empower them, or build trust among us.

What's Your Favorite Color, Blue or Blue?

I could just as well have asked, “What’s your favorite color? But it has to be blue.” What shocked me most was that I hadn't realized how dishonest and manipulative this question was. The Saturday Question does nothing to achieve what I really want for my daughters: to empower them, to trust me, to share openly. It reminds me of how my friend Georg grappled with his reaction to a dinner conversation about Fridays for Future with our daughters (see Story #2). Why is good listening so hard?

Listening was a challenge for me, not just at home. I struggled to get good answers from my colleagues, mentors, funders, and clients. They didn't roll their eyes, but I kept feeling dissatisfied with the advice I got. I would get confirmation of my point of view, but nothing new emerged most of the time unless I thought of it. I began to think that I was the only smart person around. I began to judge people, very smart people, for simply not giving me what I wanted. At one point, someone said to me: Sascha, it is not really asking a question if you already provide the answer. To ask a question requires a complete openness to whatever you get. You don't get that by saying "We have to do A or B, you must tell me by tomorrow". Such a question reveals one of two things. Either, how little faith you have in others, or how scared you are of new ideas. Keep asking this type of question, and those around you will lose their trust in giving you honest answers. This was a shocking observation. It was also great advice because I wanted to get good answers.

Show Me Your Listening!

How we listen reveals a lot about our intentions. An engineer at Facebook practices listening by collecting tons of data about users to predict their needs, not to help them lead better lives. They listen to manipulate users into spending more time looking at ads. User Voice practices a different form of listening, one with the goal of empowering prisoners to improve their rehabilitation process. And I, despite my best intentions, practiced my Saturday Question in a way that revealed only my desire for control, thinly disguised as an open question.

I talk about my family life here not because it is interesting. Our homes are a powerful mirror of the challenges we face in reconciling our desire for a Slow Lane world, with the false sense of security provided by the Fast Lane. We gravitate toward power and dominance because they seem such safe bets. If you attain power, you have a greater chance of bending reality to your liking. And this liking can be a vision, a blueprint for the future. The danger, of course, lies in the inherent contradiction of how the singular vision of a leader like Elon Musk comes about when compared to the inclusive social imagination practiced by Albina Ruiz or Mark Johnson. My Saturday Question tells us a lot about my vision for the future of my daughters, and what activities I consider to be meaningful ways to get there. The problem is, of course, that I also want them to be empowered to chart their own course, to act freely, and feel unconditionally loved and supported in whatever it is they do. There is just no way I can have it both ways.

Listening is Unconditional Trust.

Listening comes down to this: do you trust others to know what is right, or do you believe that you are superior in your vision or ability to make that judgement? The Slow Lane has helped me interrogate my own actions to reveal my intentions. It was a painful process because I discovered my own hidden fears. At the same time, it was liberating. If the governor of a notorious prison can listen, so can I. If a slum community in a failing country can listen and trust its path, it shows how possible and powerful listening really is.

Listening is not just what I do to gather information, but what I do to you in exerting my power over you.

In his book "Theory U", the author and researcher Otto Scharmer identifies four levels of listening. I think they are wonderful, and align very well with what the Slow Lane teaches us about social imagination (see Story #7). As this story shows, the Slow Lane also adds power as an important dynamic, in which listening is not just what I do to gather information, but what I do to you in exerting my power over you.

  • "Yeah, I know that already." Downloading. Listening for what you want to hear, confirming your opinions. This is me asking my daughters, what they want to do on a Saturday. But in the context of my power over them, it is barely a question because not only am I listening for what I want to hear, but I also let them feel that I judge all else.
  • "Ooh, look at that!" Factual. This is gathering information, even if it contradicts your prevailing view. It is sensing, data collection, testing. Many companies and governments do this when they run surveys, ask for feedback, collect ideas. The listening is strictly on the terms of the listener - but inviting new information to come forward. It is an essential way of gathering data, piecing together a better picture of the situation.
  • "Oh yes, I know how you feel." Empathy. Here, as a listener, we begin to notice a shift away from our own point of view or simply gathering facts to seeing the world through the eyes of others. This kind of listening enabled Albina to take the point of view of the waste pickers and to see the waste problem as a social, rather than engineering, problem. It can signal a shift of power.
  • "I can't express what I experience in words. My whole being has slowed down. I am connected to something larger than myself." Generative. This is the most advanced form of listening, the place where collective social imagination happens. In our stories, this generative listening is deeply rooted in the practice of building, empowering and serving a community. The listeners here leave open up to something entirely new, leading to more audacious new visions of change.

Applied to our most personal relationships, the Slow Lane Principles are a reminder of just how hard it can be to change our ways. We live in a world that discourages listening, and where in fear of the unknown we resort to power and dominance as tools of safety. And yet, we also know that dominance alone will not lead to a better future because it disenfranchises the people we want to help and protect the most. These are uncomfortable truths, for any person, parent, member of a community or leader. But I found the answers to be surprisingly simple, especially once I faced my fears and resolved to trust those around me.

In my next post we will visit a city government that practices listening, against all odds. Please share your thoughts and feedback with me, and don't forget to subscribe!