Listening and the Brain — Integrating the Levels

There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours. To the cognition of the brain must be added the experience of the soul.

~Arnold Bennet

I’ve been wracking my own brain trying to think of an analogy for how the three parts of the brain work together and help us understand Level One, Level Two and Level Three listening. For some reason I keep thinking of a family at the zoo.

One wise parent (the Right Brain) is watching everything, aware and vigilant and taking it all in. This parent can’t really talk, so they use other means of communication. The other parent (The Left Brain) is looking at specific things, enjoying a particular monkey playing, for example. This parent is probably also reading all the scientific names and habitat information! And their child is acting out the animals themselves, making monkey noises, and putting their body in the shape of an elephant or giraffe. The child is always on the side of Righty, where Lefty can’t see it. So Righty has to poke Lefty or find other ways to get Lefty’s attention so Lefty can understand and explain what the child is doing, learning and understanding.

Whew. Sometimes metaphors can be a bit strained! Let me say right now that this is a highly imperfect way of looking at how the brain and listening work, but it’s the best I can do at the moment.

As I have been exploring in the past three posts, one way to think about listening in the coaching relationship is to think of Level One, Two and Three as different aspects of the brain. If we think of Level One as the active child in this analogy, this is the part of our brain that makes sense of things through our own experience. In my post on this subject, I look at the interesting research that shows we use the same part of our brain to think about other people as we do to think about ourselves. This child is experiencing the zoo by experiencing it, understanding what is going on by imitation and embodiment. What does it feel like to be an elephant? Let me try it! When we do this as coaches (and in general in human relationships) we do it pre- or sub-consciously. We map things onto our own experience in order to understand. And if we can’t do this, to a great degree, we can’t really understand. In other words we need our Level One listening — but as coaches, we must be responsible for it. Acting like an elephant is of course not the same as being an elephant — this is where the other levels and curiosity come in.

If we think of Level Two as the first parent in this analogy, this is our Left Brain. It is attempting to understand the world by focusing on one thing at a time, gathering information, and analyzing. In coaching, we use this listening level to hone in on things. To help our client see the monkey of their purpose in all the foliage of their life. 🙂

But this brain doesn’t connect well with the child, with the embodied understanding. The child’s wisdom comes to the other parent, the Right Brain, or Level Three listening in this analogy. This parent is watching everything all at once and nothing in particular. And while the Left Brain parent can’t see everything, this parent (the Right Brain) can’t speak very well. So they look for ways to poke the other parent, both in terms of the interesting things the child is picking up on as well as the other things in the environment they are sensing. Then the Level Two/Left Brain parent can speak about them, and focus them in a way that is helpful to the coaching client.

It’s a partnership, and I think the most effective coaching happens when this family is harmoniously exploring together. We never want to break them up, even though each member may lead the way at times. We need them all to work with our clients, to understand the world, and to enjoy the zoo.

As always, I offer these thoughts with love and openness and curiosity — what makes sense to you? What analogy would you use? What am I not thinking about or ignoring?




One response

  1. Hello Ann,

    Re: Level 3 -What’s missing?

    My gut feel as to what is missing is the acknowledgment of the brain in the belly…all those 100 million+ neurons must be up to something! 🙂

    It is the “home” from which our felt-sense emanates..aka CTI Level 3.
    Curious? Check out New self, New World by Phillip Sheppard.

    P.S. I love, love, love your work and was very pleased to attend your workshop at last years CTI Summit!

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