In the September 12 New York Times, OpEd columnist David Brooks wrote a refreshingly apolitical opinion piece that is a worthwhile reflection on aspects of leadership that are as pertinent today as they were in the stories that formed the Old Testament. It’s worth a read for this reason alone.
But anchored discreetly in the column is a blockbuster of a thought that is worth its weight in gold for every leader. It is so profoundly important that it is worth bringing to the broadest possible daylight.
What Brooks noted, as he told the story of how different leaders reacted to different situations, is that there is a word in old Hebrew text that has no direct English counterpart, so a word had to be invented in English to try to capture the meaning intended by the Hebrew.
The Hebrew word describes a process of translating listening into doing, or as Brooks says, ‘to listen, hear, attend, understand, internalize, respond’. The translators in the time of King James of England created the English verb ‘to hearken’ to describe this complex and complete process.
Wow! Think about this for a moment. We talk about the leadership skill of listening, but hearkening is a different beast entirely. What makes ‘hearkening’ distinctive and more powerful than listening alone?
- Listening asks you to tune in, but hearkening asks you to walk in. It asks you to venture into the world of the speaker and see what he or she sees. It asks you to put on a different pair of lenses for a while to view an alternate reality, no matter how distasteful or foreign it is to you.
- Hearkening invites you to empathize, while listening allows you to stay on the sidelines. When the process asks you to ‘attend’ and to ‘understand’, it invites a level of participation in the other person’s emotional world. It’s like going to another person’s religious institution. You can walk in the door and watch what is happening, but if you want to ‘attend’ and ‘understand’, you have to take a deeper step into the emotional connection that religion has with its followers. In the work world, hearkening asks you to look beyond the shallow understanding of motivations and get into a deeper look at what makes people tick.
- Listening is passive processing, but hearkening is active meaning-making. When Brooks talks about internalizing as part of hearkening, he’s talking about how we take what we learn and create meaning from it. We’ve tried to characterize this with terms like ‘active listening’, but too many people interpret that to mean nothing more than remembering to nod your head when someone’s talking. The point about hearkening is that the listening does us little good if we do nothing with what we heard. So step one is to try to figure out what it means for us – what are the implications for our own opinions and direction and assumptions? What parts of our thinking are challenged, and where does that take the decisions we make?
- Listening does not imply an outcome, but hearkening does. The most important word – and notion – in Brooks’ process description about hearkening is the last activity – the response. The real power in hearkening is that it demands of us a response; it requires that we take action based on what we’ve heard, digested, worked to understand, and made sense of for ourselves. If we sit on that newly minted knowledge, it does us little good. The action we take may be personal – deciding to change a long-held opinion, or deciding to change a behavior that we believe is serving us poorly. But hearkening may also demand of us a more public action. It may ask us to speak out rather than remain silent, or to break with our ‘tribe’ on an issue. It may invite us to learn something new to us, like how to interact with people of a different race without fear.
Hearkening is both a demand and an invitation to a level of opportunity that listening doesn’t quite fulfill. It’s exhilarating – and daunting. It’s perhaps why we fall back to merely listening. But consider the model it offers you as a leader. It’s the difference between being someone who stops just short of the full range of leadership, and someone who exercises every muscle in the arsenal. Try tuning up your hearkening skills!
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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