Listening loudly, a lost art?

Listening loudly is one of my favourite concepts, it implies you are actively listening, paying attention and hearing what is being said. We all know someone who people just open their hearts to, they’re that person who you’ve told your story to without even realising it, that friend who everyone confides in.  Think about it, I’m pretty sure you can think of someone.

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” –Karl A. Menniger

I think that’s why I enjoy the Listening Project on Radio 4 where people come with their friends and family to have conversations packed with fun, love and pain and they really listen to each other, sharing their stories, unfolding their relationships demonstrating the power of listening.

Sadly our conversations rarely include active listening, too often our day-to-day dialogue is at best a dance with two people waiting to speak, at worst a verbal sparring for speaking rights.  Instead of listening to the other person we concentrate on how to make our next point, get our perspective in, make a statement, we’re thinking ahead rarely listening to what is or isn’t being said, how it’s being said… Stephen Covey hit the nail on the head: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  

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Sociologist Les Back argues that our culture is one “that speaks rather than listens. From reality TV to political rallies, there is a clamour to be heard, to narrate, and to receive attention. It reduces ‘reality’ to revelation and voyeurism.” (The Art of Listening, Les Back: 2007)

Think back to last conversation you had, what was your intent? How was your tolerance for silence? Did you sit with it or did you try to fill the space? When was the last time you stopped yourself making a statement and instead asked an open question? What difference might that have made to the conversation you had?

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Coaches, therapists, counsellors, researchers learn to listen loudly, actively making space for people to tell their stories, share their feelings and express their opinions.

But great listening skills aren’t just important for people working in ‘listening’ professions. We could all benefit from more awareness of how to listen well. Parents with children, families, friends, work colleagues… How much more engaged could we be and how much more understanding would we have if we stopped and really listened to what other people are saying?

Listening actively is more than about hearing the words someone is saying, it’s multi-layered and contextual – we need to understand their environment, hear what’s not being said and listen to the cadence and rhythm of their story.

Listening well is a simple act of human empathy but it’s not always easy…

 “Listening is a positive act, you have to put yourself out to do it” – David Hockney

Listening has played a huge role in my life. My career as a qualitative researcher exploring difficult social issues like poverty, disadvantage and discrimination taught me how to listen gently to people and encourage them to share their stories, however painful or distressing, without imposing my views or perspectives on their narrative. That was tough, learning to listen, not intervening or trying to ‘mend’ situations knowing that the power of the telling would be when we could weave those stories together into a compelling analysis and place it in front of people with the power to make a difference. It was uncomfortable to learn to sit with silence, not jumping in to relieve my discomfort. But frequently from that silence came the most profound revelations, feelings and insights.

It took me years to learn how to listen properly, ask questions which probed gently but didn’t lead and it’s a craft that needs constant attention. No two conversations are the same.

For most of my adult life I’ve also been involved in education & learning working with people to build their strengths and grow their capabilities. Listening plays a huge role here too whether in coaching, understanding what people need or in facilitation. What do people need to learn? How best can they build their skills and knowledge, what makes them uncomfortable, what challenges them, what gets them thinking in new and creative ways? You just can’t answer these questions without listening deeply. If you want to build a learning community you have to listen, broadcasting doesn’t work well for deep learning or for building relationships (see my earlier post here on building communities).

Social media and the growth of digital communication are often blamed for a decline in conversation and a rise in broadcasting. We’ve certainly seen a growth in abuse and the Brexit campaign led me along with others to question the quality, and kindness, that often seemed lacking in political, public and our personal dialogues. But it’s lazy to blame social media, after all they are what we make them. The conversations, broadcasting, support or abuse are largely created by us (give or take the robot spammers). Yet I’ve also seen many instances where online conversations offered positive empathy, support and succour.

Several years ago I found myself with the proverbial boot on the other foot. I was in pain, experiencing deep depression and I couldn’t talk to my closest friends or family. I needed to talk and more importantly I needed to be listened to. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that need at the time, but my months in the counselling chair, and on the telephone to the support helpline I’d call occasionally when things got too much, taught me how supportive and life-changing the power of empathic, active listening could be. Those listening spaces gave me room to talk, and somewhere I could sit with my silence, reach my own conclusions and answers. And it helped, unquantifiably so. It wasn’t that my friends and family didn’t want to help, they really did, they were simply ill-equipped to listen they wanted to fix, find a solution and make things happen for me. I just needed to be heard and not judged.

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And now I happily find myself working at Samaritans where 20,000+ volunteers provide a 24/7 listening service to people who need emotional support, in just the last twelve months they’ve answered 3,650, 986 individual calls. I’ll let that sink in.

If this doesn’t tell us that as a society our listening skills could be better I don’t know what does. I don’t just hope I know that if we all listened more, and talked less then we could make a difference. Listening is neglected art and one we could all do with refreshing and strengthening.

shushWhatever you’re going through, you can call Samaritans for free any time, from any phone on 116 123. And you might want to have a look at some of our resources for listening well like our listening wheel and SHUSH listening tips.

On Good Will Hunting, some further thoughts

Do read Good Will Huntin’ from @fuchsiablue. It’s a terrific post in which Julie explores the loss of good will and the difficulty of trying to find it again. She also describes the importance of it as organisational currency. Good will is an elusive, highly prized thing. In all areas of life it helps us to keep going when times are tough, stay positive and go the extra mile. It’s built in any number of ways, slowly over time or quickly through a grand gesture, a moment of honesty or humility. If I think of the good will I have held for people, organisations, companies and services it’s been built from a patchwork of gestures, actions and conversations that leave you feeling warm not bitter, cared for not discounted, connected not remote. It can be lost quickly through a harsh word or a bad experience, or it can creep up slowly through a number of small disappointments which chip away at your good will. I can think of companies that won my good will quickly and squandered it lightly and customer service teams who’ve turned me around with a tone, a phrase or a simple smile.

So it must be possible as Julie says to go ‘good will huntin’ so here are some top of head thoughts about how we can do that in an organisational setting –

  • Understand where and why it was lost and learn for the future, but try to avoid dwelling on the loss, it’s painful yes but we can’t wind the clock back. Like any currency that’s dropped good will needs to be rebuilt and bolstered.
  • Listen to all positive and negative feedback from staff. Get out and about, talk to people, ask them what they’re feeling, acknowledge the challenges.
  • Find out if the standards/evaluation criteria you’re using to judge goodwill and engagement are the same criteria your staff use – if not, what’s causing that gap?
  • List 10 things you’d love to discover about your organisation if you were a new employee (even if they’re not a reality now).
  • Put yourself in their shoes and play “devil’s advocate” list the 10 least satisfying things about your organisation from an employee point of view.
  • Look for common threads which point you to the need for a new approach or a change in processes, behaviour etc. from the senior team
  • Don’t be afraid to be open, honest and radical if change is needed
  • Find ways to ask your staff regularly whether you’re meeting their expectations and what you can do to improve your performance as an individual and as a leader, weave this into everyday conversations, don’t turn it into another employee survey. Ask the question openly and listen.
  • Solicit suggestions on ways you could work collaboratively to add value to the experience of working in your organisation… What about a hackathon? Or reverse mentoring? Or an employee forum? Listen to suggestions and find ways to act on them.
  • Review your people-related policies and procedures from your employees point of view – get rid of the ones which add nothing – chuck out the chintz as @HRGem would say.
  • Identify one thing you’ve always thought was “impossible” to do but, if you could do it, would completely transform your organisation in the eyes of your staff. Find a way to do it.

I’m sure this is just scratching the surface but thanks Julie for putting a new spin on this topic. I think it’s more fundamental and basic than some of the employee engagement, motivation narratives would have you believe and can be intensely personal and contextual which makes it tricky to find a simple solution for.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, I’m sure we all have examples to share and learn from.

If you have to go good will hunting then the hunt is probably just the start of a long road ahead but with a positive mindset, dialogue and persistence the journey could transform things beyond all imagining…
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The essence of leadership?

Leadership for me has very little to do with being ‘out in front’, ‘up on top’, ‘ahead of the game’ … and everything to do with this – image

… the person in front, and the person behind.

For me it’s about –

  • pausing to take time to listen to people, really listen
  • making space in the day to help someone develop their ideas, their skills, their voice
  • standing up for what’s right instead of settling for what’s easiest
  • stepping back, letting go and supporting others to stretch their wings
  • applauding success and valuing the learning that comes from failure, especially my own
  • being aware of my own strengths, and where they end!
  • getting stuck in
  • persistence
  • simple, honest conversations
  • being open-minded, not making assumptions
  • caring

I get there some days, other days I fail miserably. I’m a work in progress. How about you?

With special thanks to @simbeckhampson for tweeting that quote and getting me thinking.