Ethical Listening and Positive Organizational Psychology
Laura Dryjanska, Ph.D.
Director (Academia), Global Listening Centre.
Director of the Master of Science in Positive Organ-izational Psychology at Biola University,
Rosemead School of Psychology.
“There is a difference between truly listening and waiting for your turn to talk.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Positive Psychology has been a growing, research-based field of study for more than two decades (Donaldson & Ko, 2010). Beyond just offering strategies for recovering from mental illness, its goal is to help people thrive in different settings. Positive organizational psychology is concerned with wellbeing at workplaces, as well as flourishing of organizations.
The premise of positive psychology is that wellbeing can be defined, measured, and taught (Seligman, 2011). It includes Positive emotions, intense Engagement, good Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment (PERMA). Recent research of PERMA in the workplace context suggests that these five dimensions are not exhaustive and could be further expanded (Donaldson et al., 2020). The question is: How does listening integrate with this premise of positive psychology?
Positive Psychology interventions cannot be implemented without a good level of listening, but a good level of listening not addressed to social and therapeutic purposes would only be an end in itself.
According to Parks (2018), there are some specific ways of being in the world that create a flourishing life and other ways that restrict that life, both for ourselves and others. Listening can be understood as one of these ways of being, as it gives shape to speaking, inviting other people into a dialogue that impacts our everyday lives. Parks (2018) emphasizes that acts of listening, like all communication, are shaped by cultural and individual differences. She says we must listen ethically, with an effort to show respect to other speakers. Furthermore, Hazlett (2021) points out that ethical listening can best be defined as the conscious act of fully comprehending another party’s communication. As an active process, it requires participation by both parties in a cooperative conversation rather than a full-on confrontation.
It is well known that communication is not a
one-way street and all individuals involved in this process have ethical responsibilities. An ethical communicator tries to “understand and respect other communicators before evaluating and responding to their messages,” which implies critical thinking skills.
The implications of positive psychology to improving performance, quality of work, and wellbeing at workplaces are vast and involve differ-ent levels. For example, listening and empathy are widely considered marks of competent communica-tors and leaders. But often the desire to assert oneself, to engage in self-promotion, alongside a very strong ego prevail over the style of empathic and ethical listening. This leads to problems of a moral and philosophical nature that shall be discussed further.
Researchers over the past three decades have consistently called for greater focus on listening in the organizational contexts. Even if listening is part of positive organizational cultures, and empathy is also considered a vital trait of communication and leadership at workplaces, these two virtues do not always emerge in the traditional organizational structures. There seems to be a missing emphasis on listening in organizational settings, even when it does actually take place in thriving workplaces.
A growing recognition of the importance of listening and empathy in organizational communication is now being acquired at many workplaces. However, in times of crisis or transition, such as the one experienced in the post-pandemic era, some clear guidelines are needed.
In the face of Great Resignation, are the organizations taking time to listen to the employees during the exit interviews? If yes, how do they use the information acquired? This is just one timely example of the importance of listening for a posi-tive organizational culture that sees change as an opportunity for growth rather than an inevitable evil.
According to Kluger and Itzchakov (2021), listening is associated with and a likely cause of desired organizational outcomes in numerous areas, including job satisfaction, performance, leadership, quality of relationships, and wellbeing. Positive psychology research has found that enriching social interactions increase personal wellbeing and provide greater life satisfaction, which easily translates to workplaces in terms of workplace wellbeing and job satisfaction.
The skill of listening, based on ethical and active listening founded on empathy, is necessary for healthy, functioning, and enriching relationships with co-workers, supervisors, and subordinates. Especially in multicultural and diverse workplaces, listening appears as a must for fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion, rooted in cultural humility. A humble individual takes time to listen to another human being, without making assumptions about what is going to be said. There is nothing more discouraging than a conversation with a person who assumes that they already know what a co-worker is going to tell them, as they consider listening a waste of their precious time.
The virtue of humility thus constitutes an example of many bridges between the art of listening and positive psychology.
Beyond psychology, listening has certainly been studied from multidisciplinary perspectives over centuries. In many countries, the science of psychology is historically rooted in philosophy. It appears worthwhile to consider the philosophy of listening. Haroutunian-Gordon (2011 p. 126) notes that philosophy of listening can be defined as “a set of beliefs about the topic of listening,” divided into the following four categories: (1) the aim of listening; (2) the nature of listening; (3) the role of the listener; and (4) the relation between the listener and the speaker.
What is the meaning of a lesson, presentation, or a talk by speakers in various capacities who want to attract bystanders to listen? If the speech does not stimulate questions and interaction, there will hard-ly be a positive and ethical listening taking place. Listening includes some relevant expectations of leaders and those who speak – before and while they share, they should consider the target audience and do all they can to facilitate ethical listening.
This is especially relevant in the context of workplaces and organizations, in particular in virtual teams. According to Trevisani (2019), an Italian expert in coaching, listening to a worker or employee is closely related to empathy. In psycholo-gy, empathy includes self-identifying with the moods of another individual, the ability to understand their
thoughts and, above all, their emotions. It is differ-ent from sympathy in its intent to understand the feelings experienced by another person, not through a rational explanation, but by sharing the affective dimension of their overall experience. Ethical lis-tening in organizations is facilitated by such ability to “get inside a person’s head”, comprehend how they think and reason, while grasping the nuances of their decision-making. It takes into account cul-tural and individual diversity, which include belief systems, constraints of a language used, convictions and emotions. For a workplace coach or leader, lis-tening is the cornerstone of a relationship based on mutual understanding and respect. It can be seen as an act of giving, understanding that another person is a form of a gift to us. While it may turn into a stra-tegic act (for example, in a negotiation setting), the premise of ethical listening in a workplace context should not be seen as a means to an end, but as a worthwhile pursue in and of itself.
Organizational psychology often has to deal with a workplace conflict. Such conflict can frequently be traced to problems with listening on different levels: the non-listening or an unwillingness to listen, motivated by a conscious decision (“I don’t want to listen to her”) or a lack of ability for example because of being overwhelmed or tired (“I was so tired that I could not hear”), as well as apathetic, passive, or even distorted listening, for example when from the start a person chooses not to listen due to ideological and cultural reasons related to stereotypes and biases. The antidote to such workplace conflict is listening aimed at understanding the person in depth, including their emotional states in conditions of mutual appreciation and respect.
Coaching in organizational psychology uses some techniques for effective listening, including: fostering curiosity and interest; paraphrasing (or having the listener repeat what they understood); summarizing; rephrasing what the other person said in order to gather more information; encouraging targeted questions (conversational refocusing) in order to clarify unclear parts of the speech; avoiding personal questions until a solid relationship has been established; being attentive to non-verbal signals in order to assess emotions and moods; withholding from teaching or judging. Interestingly, while these are essential tools in a coaching relationship, they may also prove very
useful to a leader and subordinate alike. Applying such tools can likely reduce workplace conflict and stress, contributing to a greater job satisfaction, motivation, and efficacy.
Knowing how to listen is a prerequisite for understanding and sharing or not, consciously and without prejudice, the thoughts of others. This certainly paves the way to a positive psychology approach, made up of emotions, attitudes and moods that can lead to profound improvements in the individual, in their network of relationships, in the organization they belong to, in a word, improving the quality of relationships and therefore of the life and wellbeing of workers and organizations.
What are some practical implications of the above conceptual reflection? For one, it is the author’s vision for the positive organizational psychology graduate program to consciously include listening as one of the cornerstones that guide the entire framework of the degree. In integrating industrial-organizational psychology, positive psychology, and faith from a philosophical perspective, ethical listen-ing is the common thread, also in fomenting cultural humility and attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion in organizations.
Donaldson, S. I., & Ko, I. (2010). Positive organizational psy-chology, behavior, and scholarship: A review of the emerging literature and evidence base. The Journal of Positive Psycholo-gy, 5(3), 177-191.
Donaldson, S. I., Heshmati, S., Lee, J. Y., & Donaldson, S. I. (2020). Examining building blocks of well-being beyond PER-MA and self-report bias. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-8.
Haroutunian‐Gordon, S. (2011). Plato’s philosophy of listening. Educational Theory, 61(2), 125-139.
Hazlett, K. (2021). Ethical Listening…Do You Hear What I Hear? Global Listening Centre. Retrieved from: https://www.globallisteningcentre.org/ethical-listening-do-you-hear-what-i-hear/
Kluger, A. N., & Itzchakov, G. (2021). The power of listening at work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organi-zational Behavior, 9.
Parks, E. S. (2018). The ethics of listening: Creating space for sustainable dialogue. Lexington Books.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. Free Press.
Trevisani, D. (2019). Ascolto attivo ed Empatia. I segreti di una comunicazione efficace [Active Listening and Empathy: The Secrets of Effective Communication]. Franco Angeli.
Keywords: positive psychology, industrial-organizational psy-chology, Plato, cultural humility, ethical listening
Grade: Higher education (graduate level).