Tate Modern and the Art of Listening

A great idea for a break out session on a leadership development day – an hour at the Tate Modern with an art expert!

Picture this – a small group of senior executives gathered at the Tate Modern, waiting, with some trepidation, for the curator to take them around an exhibition of 20th Century portraits. Knowing nothing about art (other than what they like:-) they are out of their comfort zone and wondering: will this be fascinating? or a load of pompous blather? will I seem ignorant? what will we learn?

We listened carefully to the expert describing the portraits in their historical context, the techniques used by the artist, and how the pictures were received at the time. We shared our own impressions – the impact each picture had on us, the skills which we most admired, and our imaginings about the person captured in the paintings. We took our time, were thoughtful, looked at things in different ways, and listened to each others’ ideas. That included the curator – who seemed just as interested in listening to our comments about the paintings, as sharing her expertise. She helped create an atmosphere of openness: no rush to judgement: no right or wrong. We learned about the artists and their subjects, but we also learned more about each other, and valued each others’ opinions. The more we shared, the more we saw, and enjoyed, the pictures. We reflected on how different this experience was to a typical meeting at work.

Too often, work meetings are an exercise in one person, or group, imposing their ideas on another, in order to make a decision. We prepare for the meeting, by bringing facts which support our position. We might have a discussion paper which proscribes the extent of the debate and sets out a recommendation which must be supported, or argued against. We might rely too much on our experience and knowledge, or alternatively place too much emphasis on the experts’ advice. We are often rushed for time and quickly close down exploration: not REALLY listening, but waiting for someone to finish talking (or worse, interrupting!) so that we can move things along. Do we learn anything? make more informed decisions? or just get our own way v lose the argument?

The art appreciation experience at the Tate Modern reminded me of some key lessons in listening.

The Art of Listening

Listening is a positive act: you have to put yourself out to do it.” David Hockney

  • Don’t start with a fixed position, suspend judgement, just for the moment
  • Consider different perspectives, to understand what matters to others
  • Don’t make assumptions about what others think, or why
  • Ask open questions to find out more, and clarify, instead of making definitive statements
  • Instead of thinking “you’re wrong”, think “why” others might have reached a different conclusion
  • Observe and listen to the whole person – body language will tell you a lot (so keep an eye on your own!)
  • Pay attention and listen actively – make it your goal to ONLY listen (not to judge or decide)
  • Making a few notes can help to recognise, focus on, and remember key points (and is an easy distraction if you’re tempted to interrupt:-)
  • Allow enough time to think, as well as listen
  • Remember everyone in the room wants the best outcome

I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.
Larry King


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