The occasion of this article is twofold. Firstly, it’s December. And at this time of year, we’re perhaps a little fuller of gratitude, empathy, awareness for those around us and a desire to be charitable.
And secondly, I was recently inspired by the news from an ex-colleague and now friend of mine who had taken-up a volunteer position with The Salvation Army. He listens to people. Wholly, deeply and without judgement.
And so, I want to spend a few moments, at this time of year of greater empathy and awareness, reflecting on the gift of listening.
Because there are few troubles in this world which are not made more manageable than when the troubled are given opportunity to talk. Or more to the point, given the feeling of having been listened to.
That sense of “feeling listened to” is a powerful gift – but it requires focus and attention from the listener. We don’t make someone feel heard simply by asking them to share their problem – and then switching off!
And although we don’t often think it, actually there can be a great many internal challenges for us, as the listener, that get in the way of true listening.
Our own desire to talk and share. Our ego. Our want to offer an impressive contribution. Our wanting to give (unsolicited!) advice. Our “knowing exactly” how they feel (over-identification with the issue). Telling our own personal example of this person’s experience (and now, it’s all about me). An overwhelming desire to solve a problem (because that’s what you’re really asking me for, isn’t it?).
And much or all of this will come from a good place. From an intention to help. But notice how the root intention “to help” has played-out as “NOT listening”. Not truly listening.
Then occasionally, our poor listening behaviours come from not-so-good places. Perhaps we strongly disagree with what the person is sharing. Perhaps we see their issue as trivial and undeserving of our time. Perhaps the issue has us completely stuck in judgement.
And as the listener, you’re allowed to have these thoughts and emotions – just as you’re allowed to have any thought or emotion. But for sure, it’s going to impact your capacity for powerful listening.
(And I love that thought of “powerful” listening: because it is powerful. There’s energy in it – which is perhaps why we felt so spent after a period of intense listening.)
With all these challenges, no wonder listening – deep, powerful, non-judgemental listening – is such a rarity. And so, such a gift.
At this time of year, I invite you to give someone in your circle the gift of listening. And here are 8 fresh perspectives to help you do just that.
Choose reception over curiosity
As I enter into my listening event, I like to place myself consciously in a given “mode”. And whilst I’ve heard many suggest being in curiosity is the place to start, I prefer reception. Curiosity is a great state – for certain types of communication exchanges.
But when my goal is pure and deep listening, curiosity can all-too-easily become a mode that fuels an agenda for me, the listener; not you, the sharer. It has me driving into your space.
Choose, instead, to be in reception mode. That is, all power and space to you, the sharer. And have the word “reception” be anchoring thought you continually return to.
Leave your agenda at the door
If you are carrying ANY kind of agenda into the listening event, you’ll be compromising the agenda of the other person. And although this sort of zero-sum game thinking is not true for all communication exchanges, when it comes to listening: you need to leave your agenda at the door.
Like spending time with a child who is not interested in colouring within the lines (if that’s a thing for you – I know it is for me!): simply take a deep breath and let them have the space.
Know that “just” listening is valuable
“Just” is in air quotes, here. Because listening (full-stop) is highly valuable. But we can easily get over-concerned for whether we’re “adding value”. But that’s just our ego talking. Our desire to put in. Instead, relax into the thought that listening is (more than) enough.
I’m reminded of the oft-quoted story of the businessman who, on his way home every night, stops by a lamppost and tells it of his woes from the day. When he arrives home to his family, he has let go of his day and is fully present for his loved ones. If a lamppost adds value, so do you.
Don’t beat yourself up about your internal dialogue
You can’t unthink a thought. But you can take that thought – and then kick-off a long, internal dialogue with yourself on the topic. Only then, to spend yet more non-listening time berating yourself for not listening – with attendant thoughts of guilt, inadequacy and disappointment.
Thoughts are going to come. So, let them. And when they do, acknowledge them: simply, and without emotional charge. And then let it go. Like a paper boat down a gentle spring stream.
Drop any response rehearsal
One form of the internal dialogue mentioned in the previous point is response rehearsal. That is, getting ready to say something clever, penetrating, observant and powerful. Or, at least, that’s what you’ve told yourself it will be!
Practise noticing when your readying an answer for your counterpart. Because when you do, guess what? You’ve stopped listening!
Follow their thinking, not your own
A great tactic to guard against internal dialogue, response rehearsal and being on your own agenda is to make the goal to observe and follow the other person’s thinking process. That is: notice how they’re doing their thinking.
At once, this encourages you to listen deeply to the content essence, but also keep your own thinking at an elevated level. Useful, when the other person is perhaps stuck in a loop or hung-up on a detail.
Replace “to help” with “to serve”
The issue with wanting to help is it can have some urgency about it. A certain amount of forcing the issue. And a sense of worry about not helping. Choose instead to focus on service. Be of service to the other person. Ask: “What would best serve this person?”
“Help” is over here with me. My agenda. “Serve” is over there, with yours.
Be an open vessel
A simple, but powerful amalgamation of all the above: be an open vessel. It’s one of the most transformational skills I’ve learnt from my years coaching: to turn-up empty.