Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Listen like you mean it

© Maggie Sawkins 2017 My word art on Etsy.
True listening is effortful. It requires that we put aside our own agenda, any internal commentary or ‘busy-head’ obsessions of the moment and pay quality attention. Even if only bite-size, say for three minutes of quality listening, you will be giving what we all crave: someone else’s undivided attention. 

Over 20+ years, I’ve sat on many dozens of occasions in all sorts of rooms, with two or more people who've ended up there due to an inability or lack of willingness to talk, or more fundamentally to listen, and hear what the other has to say. 

It may sound simple, but it is not easy. When we are struggling, we don't want to hear the other's point of view. We like what we think and we don't want to encounter things that go against what we think. We avoid it with a fear of ‘what might happen?’ or ‘making it worse’. But eventually, getting the chance to speak without interruption and be fully understood, helps a person begin to process their conflict.  

In mediation it slows down a difficult conversation. When we are able to listen - and truly hear another - we have a chance to begin to understand, resolve our differences and find a way forward.

And above all it takes courage to be willing to listen. Not interpret, or ‘here’s my version of what you said’, not counsel with advice or detective-style evidence gathering, but truly hear and register what is true for the other. We can all do this: be like a mirror; reflect back what we actually heard, check we have understood someone else’s reality. 

After all, as Thomas Gordon outlines, there are many, many potential blocks to listening. There’ll be facts we’re assuming or ‘mind-reading’, let alone the numerous distractions we suffer if our own needs are going unmet. And much depends on the context, the content, and any misfiring expectations that there may be. No wonder we find it so difficult: its amazing any of us get on at all! 

On the train home after teaching a course on ‘Listening & Responding',(!) for charity volunteers, I was distracted by the two people in the next set of seats. I registered the woman manager saying the same thing intensely, a couple of times: it started to bug me. Long day with a very early start and patience had run out clearly. 

It transpired that her colleague had missed an action that severely affected her workload. ‘Its not a big deal…’(it obviously was) 'but it means I’m really going to be under pressure…’ He kept reiterating how they’d manage, but she continued to repeat the issue over and over and over, all the way from Cambridge to London and yet again as they left the train. 

At first in my post-course tiredness I was irritated, but then ‘woke up’, bless me: its because she hasn't yet felt heard by him. Had her colleague not brushed away her complaints with the 'fix' but REALLY acknowledged the effect of his actions, heard her frustration and showed understanding, she may have then been able to register and let it go: she might not have repeated a virtually identical sentence, a dozen times. 

I know for myself that I can give my best listening when wearing my professional mediation or coaching hats, and then fall off the active listening wagon miserably with a friend or family member. It is so dependent on fielding any of the obstacles above; and sometimes history really does get in the way. I’m learning all the time and awareness is key. If I know I might get a button pushed, and if I remember, I can do my imperfect best to prepare for that. 

The thing I really love about the art of listening without prejudice, it that it truly simplifies life. All we need to do, is to utterly, impeccably, pay attention. And when we do, it will still be imperfect. But a willingness to really be still, in body and mind and hear what the other person is saying, is all. To rein attention back from all obvious distractions and invite them to ‘So, tell me…’.
Being heard. Feeling understood. A sense of acceptance maybe, relief. We don't need to pay for it, we can ask for it. And it works. I have several relationships where we exchange this sort of listening, as and when. We might summarise with only the ‘headlines’ instead of reflect all we heard, but that works too. 

I know from being heard: getting that inner gut release or 'aaahhh' and having heard hundreds of others, that giving this attention in and of itself is a genuine and rare gift that can make the world of difference.  

'Be a good listener. Your ears will never get you in trouble.' Frank Tyger