The Gift of Listening
Over twenty-six years ago, my very first foray into the business world was on an assessment centre where I role-played a disgruntled customer in a meeting with the ‘CEO’ of a fictitious company. The senior executive (whose leadership skills were being assessed) dazzled with brilliant strategic solutions to my situation, and yet, I experienced him as pushy and not listening. During our role-play, I’d given him cues like: ‘I’ve got several problems’ and he started with the first and didn’t get to the others. I told him, ‘I was disappointed’, more than once, and he didn’t ask me for any details nor did he acknowledge my feelings or own his responsibility. In fact, I still remember being struck by two things: his impressive problem-solving capacity in contrast with his underwhelming emotional intelligence. And, I recall feeling dissatisfied and even angry about our ‘meeting’. Apart from my experience in my family (which I save for therapists!), I think this is when I became even more obsessed with listening.
I notice shopkeepers who hand me plastic bags after I tell them twice not to give me one. I notice that I can spend hours with people who don’t ask me questions although I could describe many details I learnt about them. I notice people who surprise me with their lack of curiosity about others. And, I notice the opportunities I miss when a friend says, ‘I think I made a mistake’ or times I respond too quickly when a family member tells me they’re feeling stuck.
I’m not being paid to write this but I have to say that since joining Cultivating Leadership, I’ve been highly impressed with the level of listening I experience. One of our fundamental frameworks is Listening to Learn and the talk certainly is being walked at CL! However, despite my own background as a psychotherapist and coach, I always appreciate a reminder of the importance of listening, and have noted some common parts in many of us that fall under the Listen to Win and Listen to Fix types of listening.
When we Listen to Win, we are basically making the other person’s experience wrong or irrelevant, even with the best of intentions. One version of this is The Storyteller: that part in us that has a story ready to tell at the slightest prompt. As in all these types of listening modes, sometimes we welcome The Storyteller who relaxes us, connects, entertains, makes us laugh, and sparks a dinner party or meeting that needs some energy! However, if overdone, stories and anecdotes can fill the space so there is no room for others to contribute, can keep the conversation at a superficial level, and not allow for deeper connection.
A more extreme version of this is The Competitor. Here’s an example that I experienced recently. I was talking with two friends and one began to tell a story about her parents’ difficult migration experience. Soon after she uttered a few sentences, my other friend began to tell the story of his parents’ even more traumatic migration to a different country. After we heard the second story, I circled back to the first story, asking her to continue, which she seemed to appreciate. About thirty minutes later, the exact same dynamic happened in reverse, and I then asked the other friend to finish their story. When The Competitor is present, it’s almost like we listen for a cue or trigger that sets us off on our own tangent. One of the most obvious versions of this are people I’ve met who always seem to have a funnier, more difficult, bigger, smaller, more successful, more interesting – a more everything experience compared to everyone else that they feel compelled to describe. When I’ve been on the receiving end of this, I feel disengaged, or worse, invisible.
The most efficient way to Listen to Win is in the form of The Naysayer. That’s when you make a statement and instead of enquiring further, The Naysayer says nothing, changes the subject, or negates your experience. In most cases, the intention may be to reassure you or comfort you, or convince you otherwise. For example, you might express a concern about something and are met with a version of: Don’t be silly! or You’ll be fine! or I don’t know why you’re making a big deal of this! A memorable example is of a CEO client of mine during a team development workshop. The members of his executive team were feeling insecure about changes that were happening in the organisation. He confidently went around the group of six, telling each one directly that they had nothing to worry about. He was convinced that this gesture would correct their faulty thinking so we could move on. On the contrary, we then had to spend some time talking about why they all still felt the same and, on top of that, now felt they were no longer safe to reveal how they felt about any other topic as well!
I think we’re all even more familiar with Listening to Fix moves. Again, sometimes, it’s exactly what we want and need: someone to help us with solutions and ideas. However, there are many times when this type of listening doesn’t feel like we’re being heard. The Feeling Minimiser part is a classic interaction that we can all too easily fall into. Just the other day, a friend asked me how I was. I told her that I was feeling a bit down and she immediately told me all the reasons why I shouldn’t be feeling that way. To her credit, I brought this to her attention, and she immediately apologised and then listened. I know she cares about me and wanted to cheer me up but the effect was that I didn’t feel listened to. As a coach, when I’ve explored the deeper drivers of this kind of move, people often admit that they felt uncomfortable about the emotions of others and wanted to shift the conversation to a more predictable, familiar level.
The Speedster is someone who’s in a hurry and doesn’t have time to listen in any detail to you. In fact, they pride themselves on coming up with solutions to your situation especially when you don’t ask for it. They often believe they can see what you need to do almost as soon as you start talking. I still remember decades ago when a colleague came into my office during a busy phase and started to complain about several things at once: clients, her to-do list, and feeling overwhelmed. As she was talking, I listened and formulated some ideas to ‘help’ her so we could both get back to our work, and at the first gap in the conversation, I primed myself to give her my best solutions. Before I could speak, she smiled, thanked me, and said that she felt so much better! It was such a great reminder that people can come up with their own solutions if we give them a space to think in – if they are looking for solutions. We under-estimate what good listening can do. When we are listened to, we can feel calmer, valued, clearer, creative, can hear ourselves think, and discover what else we think and feel. At best, we can deeply connect with ourselves and what matters to us. Nancy Kline refers to a ‘thinking environment’ which I often remind myself of: providing an environment for people to think and feel is the best kind of listening we can do.
In the last year of my mother’s life, I visited her in a retirement village and met a new friend of hers. I remember asking her questions: how she felt about giving up driving, how she found the community in the village, when she and her husband decided to move in, etc. Each time after that when I spoke to my mother, she would tell me how much her friend wanted to talk with me again. I felt sad that something that should be our daily experience was so rare for this woman.
What can we do to be better listeners? The wonderful thing about humans is that we can be very forgiving when someone takes responsibility for what they do. It’s not too late during a conversation to say: Sorry, I cut you off. Please go back to what you were saying or I lost focus and missed your last sentence or I just noticed that I skipped over something important you just said – can you tell me more. We can’t be ‘perfect’ listeners and, like most interpersonal dynamics, listening is a process rather than an off-on switch.
Noticing how much we talk can be helpful. I’ve often encouraged coaching clients who want to work on their ‘telling’ mode to reflect on the ratio of how much they talked compared to the other person in a conversation. If there’s a consistent pattern of 80% you and 20% the other, then that’s feedback to reflect on further. This may sound strange but back in the days when I was a psychotherapist, I went through a phase of my clients lying on a couch. Apart from the fact that it allows clients to drop more deeply into their internal world, I found it was very handy for me to literally put my hand over my mouth when I felt an urge to talk! In every case that I recall, my clients would reveal something important that may have been missed if I had said something in that specific moment. Try it! Go a bit longer without speaking and see what happens…
Noticing what drives us to talk can also be enlightening. Sometimes we’re not even aware of what motivates us to speak. Equally important, we often don’t notice when we’re not grounded or are functioning at high speed. The less centred we are, the more likely we are to not listen deeply and create openings for some of these parts I’ve mentioned to take over. The less centred we are, the less likely we are to be comfortable with emotions and being fully present. Some drivers are: to help, to comfort the other, to comfort ourselves, to entertain, to get back to something more important to us, to show off, to avoid silence and awkwardness, to prove our worth, to be seen, to feel valued, to justify ourselves, to convince the other or ourselves, to explore, to discover, to connect, to inform, to create a thinking space and, of course, to learn. What drives you most often?
How do we encourage better listening? Our busy, complex lives mean we have even more distractions and reasons to not listen well. And, more reasons why we need to listen! Sometimes, people just don’t know that they’re not listening well. Calmly saying something like – I just need to hear myself speak in your presence or I’d love to hear your story after I finish telling you mine or I don’t want any solutions but would love you to ask me some questions – might be enough to gently alert someone to what they’re doing. Perhaps, like most changes we want to see in the world, we can strive to be better listeners for others and hope that inspires them.
A couple of years ago, a dear friend of mine spent quite some time in hospital for cancer treatment. She complained to me that friends who visited her kept bringing chocolates and flowers despite the fact that both things disagreed with her – and even more telling – despite her requesting them not to. She joked that she could open a shop! The best thing anyone could have given her was to simply be fully present with her and listen to whatever she wanted to talk about. And, yet, people felt they weren’t enough without offering something else and/or they felt uncomfortable being with her in the state she was in. Either way, I find this story touching and a good reminder of the gift of listening and of the need for us all to continue to work on this magical skill that we all desire – now more than ever.
I wanted to close with an experience I had when I worked as a trauma counselor in Sydney prisons, before trauma became the essential topic it is today. I saw a woman whose ex-husband – they were both prison officers – had attempted suicide. She was upset, angry, and thankful that he was still alive. As I listened to her, I had a feeling that a part of her wished he had succeeded. When I gently and cautiously offered this to her, she cried with relief that I had named something she felt – faintly – but could barely acknowledge to herself. My heroin-addicted brother had been threatening suicide for decades which deeply disturbed me and my family. I always felt a mixture of anger, frustration, fear and powerlessness around influencing him. When he finally did commit suicide, I remembered this woman amongst the flood of emotions I experienced: sorrow, guilt, devastation, and relief for him, my parents, other brother, and for myself. And, it helped… a little.
When we deeply listen to others – to what they say and don’t say – while listening to ourselves, we are challenged to grow and expand the way we see the world and who we are. In that moment, she also gave me a gift: permission to feel, think, and be the immensity of what it means to be a human being.