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Interpersonal Skills for Green Executives: The Value of Generative Listening

Our work with Green Executives uses a four-part approach for leadership effectiveness and impact:

This is the first of a three-part series on select Interpersonal Skills that are part of the competency of Developing Self and Team.

These skills are essential for accomplishing your personal and career goals, and they rotate on the core axis of relationship-building -- how effectively you are able to work with others. It also relates to your ability to partner effectively with clients or customers or stakeholders to get things done that matter.

This week, we’re focusing on the interpersonal skill of Generative Listening.

First, what is Generative Listening?

Based on the work of Otto Scharmer, generative listening goes beyond what we think about when we consider the practice of listening.

To understand what Generative Listening means, let’s look at the four levels of listening that Scharmer proposes:

  1. At the first level, we are essentially “downloading” what we’re receiving. We are listening with the purpose of Confirming Data.

  2. At the second level, we are gathering data that confirms or disconfirms what we already know. We are object-based at this level. We are listening with the purpose of Gathering Facts.

  3. At the third level, we are reflecting on what we’re hearing and not hearing. This is the relational level, where we also are connecting with what the person is saying. We are listening with the purpose of Relating and Understanding.

  4. At the fourth level, we are establishing what is known, what is not known, and what’s possible. We are listening with the purpose of Collaboration and Innovation. Some signs that you’re in this fourth level include asking open-ended questions, such as “What if we…” or “How could we…”. Brainstorming, where judgement is set aside for the free flow of options, could also be seen as a type of fourth-level listening.

When it is useful or valuable?

Generative listening isn’t something we use all the time. Sometimes we just want to know what time it is, or what the status is on a project.

It’s most valuable at times when a problem needs to be solved and there isn’t a good solution that fits, or when people disagree.

Why is it important?

When we consciously move from levels 1 to 3 and into level 4 listening, we’re better able to address the challenges that are thorny for our organization or for our team.

It’s about establishing a win-win that may not have been previously on the table. Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone always walks away thrilled with the solution, but it can provide an alternative approach that satisfies the core concerns or needs or wants of those involved.

How is it relevant to me as a Green Executive?

I can’t think of a more valuable skill for us to have today as Green Executives than Generative Listening, given the climate challenges that we are facing at this point in time.

Clients, communities, and our fellow team members are looking for innovative ways to tap into what can be done to address the climate emergency, and generative listening is a core skill in the Green Executive toolkit for doing so.

How can I develop my Generative Listening skills?

The first key in developing this skill further is to consciously be aware of the level at which you’re listening, and to shift into Level 4.

Try this: the next time you go to a meeting with others, pay attention to what’s going on in the room. What can you identify is happening at each of the 4 levels of listening noted above?

Later, reflect on the meeting and make a few notes. A few questions to consider:

  • How did your awareness of the 4 levels change that experience in the meeting for you, as a Green Executive?

  • And how could you apply the 4 levels in future interactions you have with your team?

Can we help with moving you -- or your team members -- forward on the path to Green Executive success? Reach out to Beth Offenbacker, Ph.D., at or 703-623-4811 to discuss if our Executive/Leadership Coaching services are right for you. We work with individual Green Executives and with Green Organizations. All services are customized to your needs.

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