Radical Listening to Improve Understanding of System Dynamics

This article is based on a keynote I delivered to the International System Dynamics Society Ph.D. Colloquium in Reykjavik, Iceland (2018).

Ever talk to someone who was clearly not listening? “My eyes are right here,” you think as their gaze drifts over your shoulder and around the room. Or maybe they keep trying to finish your sentences, talking over your words in anticipation of your statements [by the way, if you’re guilty of this, please stop]. Perhaps your conversation partner is engaged but they keep steering the conversation in other directions. Most of your energy is spent redirecting them back to your point. In any of these scenarios, it’s all very exhausting.

I’m sure all of us have experienced this in our daily lives. Professionally, as researchers, our maneuvering is more subtle. For instance, qualitative researchers are trained to listen carefully. However, we are still trying to confirm or refute a scientific hypothesis. Therefore we structure a pathway into our interviews through semi-structured interview protocols to meet that research goal. By narrowing down ideas to academic constructs, we use phrase pivots to lead us where we need the conversation to go. This is not necessarily wrong, it’s just one way to understand what you want to know — the hunch you’re trying to confirm. But what if we engaged to have conversations on topics that we didn’t even know to ask — the parts of the story we couldn’t even fathom? How much wiser and more nuanced would our work be if we practiced this type of listening?

The intentionality and mindfulness by a listener that is necessary to uncover something new or unknown — that type of listening is radical. And for system designers/modelers and investigators, it’s a critical skill. Listening for that which we do not know to search for will make us better modelers of the system we’re trying to chart or understand.

What is radical listening and why does it matter?

Business consultant, Lainie Heneghan, says that radical listening is

The act of allowing the other person to express themselves completely, without interruption and without any preconceived notions on one’s part — with the intent to fully absorb and process what they are saying.

Listening without judgment. Listening to understand. This is actually really tough to do in practice.

I asked what radical listening meant to the Twitterverse and Dr. Jason Purnell, an esteemed community leader, professor, and researcher at Washington University, said this:

“[Radical listening is…] listening to understand and not to respond. Listening until you enter into the other’s person’s reality as much as you are able and are engaged — and changed — as a result.”

“Entering another person’s reality” requires deep empathy — sitting in one’s shoes. Trying to understand without judgment. Not responding. As a system dynamicist, this is exactly what we should strive to be doing when modeling a system — to enter in and understand from someone else’s vantage point. The act of seeing the world from someone’s perspective should be transformative and challenge common assumptions about how people in one part of a system understands how the world works. This is not to say there is no objective truth, but simply that social mechanisms are underlying any given physical system that can tell us more about what is sustaining a system’s structure. Things like bias, perceived versus actual goal gap structures— these types of latent/psychological structures can help us deeper understand that which we believe to be true.

The other point to underscore is that it’s listening NOT TO RESPOND. Half of us are simply listening and waiting for our turn to speak. We use the pause in a conversation as a social courtesy to check a box — to say we had dialogue. The encouragement to “not respond” isn’t a passive gesture, but one that signals a savoring, chewing, and processing of what the person is saying.

Radical listening requires you to confront your own biases, stereotypes, and preconceived ideas about others. It asks you to replace judgment with curiosity and let humility lead you to a deeper understanding of the world and how others experience it.

Using Radical Listening to Confront Stereotypes for Better Understanding of Systems

If we’re honest, many of us are filtering other’s voices through our own thoughts. We have our own set of preconceived biases, stereotypes, and perceptions based on our experiences. This is natural, but it can be limiting. It’s problematic for understanding a system because our natural biases make their way into our models and become like a Rorschach test — a window for the world to see the way we think about the origin of problems. It’s very vulnerable.

I love how the author, Chimamanda Adichie, has unpacked the issue with stereotypes:

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

These scripts exist in our deep subconscious and we all have them. They are neurologically wired into our axons. They are reinforced anytime we see something that confirms the stereotypes we have in our minds and by doing so, increasingly blinds us to that which we may have missed. And these biases show up in our models.

Without radical listening, our models serve as a blueprint to the modeler’s biased and incomplete perspective on the world. I’ll never forget when a mentor reviewed a first draft model of how I believed suicide in teens worked and then said, “It’s interesting to see how you think about this.” He clearly did not see the same model I did and noted places where my biases and experiences were on full display. My work demonstrated a view — one perspective (mine) — that did not demonstrate a rigorous research process. This first draft model was easily refuted simply by asking someone to critique it.

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” the statistician George Box is often quoted for this statement. And many of us requote it over and over. But what makes a model useful? What I found interesting is that my model of suicide became more and more useful the more I showed it to others and asked for and incorporated critique. This is radical listening in action.

As people who are trying to understand how feedback governs systems, stereotypes can limit our vision. They stunt our growth in seeing all sides of a story or the fuller picture. Ultimately, when we model with these limitations, our insights are inaccurate and short-sighted. This is how we end up creating models that aren’t useful — policies that foster unintended effects on systems, and ultimately new problems that we did not anticipate.

Radical listening is a way of understanding beyond obvious scripts and stereotypes and is one of the most important skills you will gain as an agent for systems change.

How to Become a Radical Listener

I’m sure there are several practices one could use to grow in one’s radical listening skills. Here are a set of structures and practices we use at skipdesigned.com when interviewing people to understand the system dynamics of a problem.

Create the Conditions for Radical Listening

If you’re looking for methods based on system dynamics theory in this list, you may be disappointed. Many of these recommendations come from my experience as a social worker working with adolescents in mental and behavioral health hospitals and the foster care system. A lot of this comes from common sense and I’m continuously refining the list as I deepen my own practice.

Structural Conditions for Radical Listening

  1. Provide a sense of trust and confidentiality. No one wants to share something that may be potentially damning. Social desirability bias is a real threat to research. There are two ways to foster trust necessary to understand deeply: through relationship and structural means. A relationship is just what it sounds like — developing rapport and trust with the person you’re talking to is of utmost importance, takes the most time and intentionality as well as authenticity. If it’s appropriate, a non-disclosure agreement or informed consent process including confidentiality clauses are useful for people to share how they are experiencing something. When conducting interviews on self-harming and suicide in adolescents, teens have shared very vulnerable information and ideas because they know that nothing specific and potentially identifiable would be attributable back to them. This layer of confidence can remove fear and open a wealth of insight.
  2. Limit distractions in your environment. Silence your cell phone. Limit the number of people around you. Create a conducive environment for listening. Put you and who you’re listening to in places where your distractions are limited.
  3. Give yourself ample time to sit with someone. 30 minutes is a long time, but perhaps not enough to dig beyond surface level stories and information. Nor is it enough time to build trust. It may take several sessions and conversations, but peeling back the first layer of a story is a process. The more you engage with sincerity and a nonjudgmental stance, the more they’ll trust you’re treating them with respect.

In the Conversation…

  1. Ask good questions. Often I get the most amount of nuance when asking questions that lean into something they’ve already said. “Can I go back to something you mentioned about…” is a great way to dig deeper. “Is there anything else that you think is important to share?”
  2. Watch your body language. How are you sitting? Where are your eyes? Watch your face. The great thing about our current environment of Zoom-ing is that you can see what you look like when you’re listening to someone talk. Check-in with an honest friend for feedback. Do you have the face of someone who is genuinely interested and encouraging someone to share, or do you look combative, disapproving, or bored? Many of us don’t realize just how angry we look when we’re really just curious or thinking.
  3. Leave judgment at the door. Your values. Your morals. Your ethics. Leave all that at the door and ask questions that suggest anything is game. In our work to understand barriers of sending children to preschool for communities in poverty, instead of asking, “Does your child go to school?” we asked, “How does your child spend their day?” It’s not perfect, but it’s better than leading. My mentor, Dr. Peter Hovmand, often refers to a practice of having “unconditional positive regard” for the people we serve and especially when trying to understand systems. Practicing unconditional positive regard towards others will deepen our understanding of unfamiliar angles and experiences in a system.

The Takeaway

Radical listening is ultimately about managing yourself to go deeper and challenge our own assumptions about how systems are structured. We who model and try to understand problems erupting from complex systems have an ethical imperative to listen, especially to folks who these problems most affect, and to do it with integrity, sincerity, and a genuine desire to learn. For those of us who move these models into a simulation model, we have a greater ethical imperative to ensure we have captured a problem as adequately as possible before making recommendations for policy or practice. Doing so will lead to better insights and useful models that actually make a difference in the world.




Social Work and Education System Dynamicist. Executive Director of SKIP (SKIPDesignEd.com). https://www.linkedin.com/in/saraschung

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Saras Chung, PhD, MSW

Saras Chung, PhD, MSW

Social Work and Education System Dynamicist. Executive Director of SKIP (SKIPDesignEd.com). https://www.linkedin.com/in/saraschung

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