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Listening – a key for sustainability and social innovation

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

Inspiring encounters with students in HEC Business School

By Charlotte Dufour and Lissia Amach

The Listening Inspires team had an unexpected and inspiring start to the school year in September 2021: we had the pleasure of being invited to run a couple of sessions on the art of listening as part of the “SASI Ideas Festival”, which marks the first two weeks of the Masters Programme on Sustainability And Social Innovation” (SASI) offered by the French business school HEC (“Hautes Etudes Commerciales”) to students from around the world.

We were a bit nervous, we admit. The theme of “listening” might seem a bit odd amidst presentations on sustainability in business, policy and academia, even though the program was very creative. Our sessions started early: would students show up? And assuming some would, would they think us crazy if we offered to start with a moment of meditation?

The anxiety soon dissolved when Charlotte – who facilitated the first session - found herself in front of 60 pairs of bright eyes, full of ideas, expectations and perhaps a touch of anxiety, as they embarked on an academic journey that will most likely have profound implications for their future.

After a brief introduction on why and how Listening Inspires came into being, we dove into various experiences of listening. First with a moment of “mindful connection” (through meditation and visualization) as a means to anchor ourselves in our bodies and the present moment. This was in line with the Festival’s theme of the day “Anchor”. Then, we collectively explored the questions “Why is listening important for sustainability and social innovation? Why might it be difficult?”. We did so in ways that cultivated the art of listening.

First, students took a couple of minutes to listen to their own thoughts and emotions as they reflected alone on their relationship to listening. They then paired up to share their insights, applying principles of deep listening as they did so – even though the vibrancy of 30 pairs exchanging ideas meant hearing others was not always easy! Pairs then mingled into groups of four for a few minutes, before we all gathered in an inspiring plenary exchange.

Their answers to the question “why is listening important?” were particularly insightful. “We listen to connect”. “Listening is key when addressing complexity, where the first step is to understand.” This resonated with another insight “We need to listen to learn”. The importance of hearing different points of view and going beyond the assumptions we often make about what others think or feel was also highlighted. This was felt as particularly relevant given many students expect to work in multi-disciplinary fields or environments. They saw listening as key to breaking silos. They also shared how important listening is to understand others’ needs, to connect with them and experience true empathy. Finally, several students pointed to the necessity to listen to Nature as we seek solutions to environmental challenges, but also as a source of well-being, recognizing that in our modern societies we have lost this fundamental connection.

We also acknowledged listening is difficult. Some described how when listening, our mind often shifts to our own ideas and thoughts, such that we need to regularly “reset” to be really present to the other person. One participant pointed to the practical challenges of listening: a leader can’t always afford to listen to everyone all the time - at some point, decisions need to be taken. The context and frame wherein listening can occur is thus key. Finally, another reminded the group that listening to one’s self is the first step for listening to others and developing empathy.

This beautifully opened the space for the next session, facilitated by Lissia, a week later, which focused on empathy…

In the second session, we explored the territory of empathy. Dedicated to creating a safe and open space for sharing, we opened the session with a moment of mindfulness to foster calm and connection. We took the time to explain how the practice of calm through meditation can help harness deep awareness and clarity and is a pathway for connection to ourselves and others.

We then moved to a moment of reflection on empathy, using the same structure as the first session, starting with self-reflection followed by a discussion in pairs, then in groups of four, ending with a plenary exchange. The questions asked were What does empathy mean for you?andHow can empathy foster inclusive leadership?”.

To immerse the students in an experiential learning of empathy and to help them practice empathetic listening, this time guidelines were provided to the listeners and speakers. The listeners were simply encouraged to offer their presence and attention. How does that look like? Listening, as though there was nothing more important than the person speaking, resisting the urge to react or provide solutions. Listening silently, with the only exception to seek clarifications. The speakers were encouraged to express themselves with full honesty – in other words, to express what was alive in them as they reflected on the subject.

The reactions to the exercise and the responses to the questions revealed the depth and wisdom of all those young and vibrant souls. Some shared their awareness that listening is as important as speaking. Some realized that listening without reacting or providing solutions creates a real space for deeper connection, as the speaker feels both more seen and heard. Some shared that where there is patience, there is empathy and where there is empathy, there is honesty. The students had no doubts that empathy is critical for inclusive leadership; that an effective and inclusive leader should have the ability to connect with people on a human level.

To stay with what was alive in the room after the moment of sharing, ie. the idea of connecting to the humanity of a person, it was decided, spontaneously, to close with a benevolence exercise, where students were paired and asked to look at each other in the eyes and to repeat in their heads “I wish you happiness”. Nervous laughter resonated across the room, soon replaced by teary-eyes and emotional silence.

We walked away from these encounters, grateful, energized and hopeful – or rather convinced – that the future is in good hands, with this rising generation of aware and committed change makers. It inspired us to do more with students. So watch this space!

And if you are working for a university or training institution, or are a student, and believe we can make a useful contribution to students’ learning experience, don’t hesitate to contact us at

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