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Listen Up - The Value, The Vision, The Various Steps

There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak. Simon Sinek, author, speaker, organizational consultant

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on the sofa reading a storybook. I thought I was reading it to my grandson, Eli.

However, Eli was tearing around the living room, down the hall, back to the living room, jumping up on the fireplace hearth, flopping down on the carpet to get in position to circle the coffee table and start all over again.

I watched Eli’s antics out of the corner of my eye. After several coffee table encirclements, I decided to cease with the read aloud due to the apparent lack of interest.

Within two seconds, Eli stopped all motion and looked at me. He seemed to sense the issue. “I’m an active listener,” he said.

New meaning to the concept.

Active listening was a term coined by psychologist Carl Rogers. The idea was to teach therapists to stay focused on their clients in a warm-hearted way.

Rogers’ believed that when people are shown respectful interest and attention (through engaged listening which gets inside their world view) they can talk through their own problems and come to useful solutions. His emphasis was on strengthening the relationship between patients and therapists (my take).

High quality listening, according to research, does bring about a cornucopia of positive outcomes for speakers, listeners, teams, and organizations. Some people would rather be listened to than receive a raise at work according to research I saw recently!

It’s not just relationships that improve through good listening, but even job performance and well-being in general. People who listen well are seen as trustworthy and caring.

Now I found Eli’s version of “active listening” very humorous. And, strangely enough, running around may have helped his active mind focus on what was being said.

His sister often draws while listening to her father read. I remember a college president who doodled in meetings. He claimed it was the best way for him to stay focused.

The problem is that we have certain ways we gauge whether we are being listened to…or not. Things like periodic eye contact, an occasional clarifying question, a validating comment or two, perhaps hearing a couple of our words repeated, reassure us.

When we don’t receive what we believe are indications of being listened to, we don’t assume that others have various ways of listening (like Eli), rather we go to dark places. Places where we are not valued or cared about.

It’s a problem which can cause devastating consequences. Half-hearted commitment. People leave relationships and places of employment. Patients and clients sue their doctors and lawyers in larger numbers when they don’t feel listened to.

Good listening can be healing psychologically, perhaps even physically. Certainly, it is appreciated and largely contributes to strong connections.

I’m a so-so listener. Like everyone, my mind thinks faster than people speak. What is my mind doing while waiting for the next word?

Going all over the place. Sometimes thinking about my next question or what I will say in response. Sometimes down a rabbit hole.

In an attempt to be a better listener, I ask myself periodically if I can say back the essence of what someone just told me.

Also I do usually notice when I’m lost, admit to mind-wandering, and ask for something to be repeated if possible.

I was dumbstruck a month or so ago when I was interviewed by journalist, Rufus Woods, at his power of attention and good listening. He listened to me talk about the compassion practice (not just heard me) for over three hours! Imagine.

I was nervous about doing the interview. What would he ask? What would I say?

As I was telling someone about my anxiety, the man replied, “It will be a gift. You will learn more about yourself than you ever knew.”

And it was true. Afterwards, I wanted to know how he did what he did. Did he have a special technique?

Rufus replied that the best way to describe his approach was to contrast it to how he used to be. He described his earlier way of listening as more “self-centered.” He had certain questions he wanted answered and the answers needed to fit into his mental framework. He was mechanical and formulaic in his approach.

Over time and after being introduced to a concept called “appreciative inquiry" (animated example, he changed.

Rufus became interested in capturing the spirit, the purpose, the meaning of what was going on with the people he was interviewing. He listened for what the person was trying to contribute to the world.

His aim was to get inside their perspective, their values, their heart. To appreciate them.

This approach required that Rufus to let go of his own judgments. He looked for people’s deep intentions, their goodness.

Rufus started to think of himself as a vessel channeling something greater than himself, letting go of his own agenda. Magic happened.

As I thought about what Rufus was doing, it made listening into not only an art, but maybe even a spiritual practice…capturing the spirit of the other person faithfully and appreciatively.

When I’ve read about people who have learned to become better listeners, it seems they do enter into a new space. Perhaps another dimension. An altered reality.

I don’t know what to call it or how to describe this magic which Rufus alludes to. How I have seen it described in research literature is getting into a shared space of “togethering.”

The space is safe, the boundaries are relaxed, the speaker begins to explore his or her perceptual field more and more fully. People can consider complex and contradictory perceptions and emotions without feeling threatened.

Now keep in mind that much of this research is not happening in a therapeutic setting, but in organizations where performance is the primary goal. We rarely consider the significance of good listening for high performance (Business schools teach a lot about presenting, but virtually nothing about listening).

These cutting edge organizations have realized that good listening powerfully touches on relationships and thinking and collaboration and cooperation and performance and respect and appreciation and well-being …. it’s pretty magical as Rufus says.

I can see the vision of where I would like to go, but where do I start?

1. I remind myself of how important good listening is for living the good life. I can hold the image of a super-listener like Rufus in my mind. Create an intention to be a good listener. Keep my eye out for good listeners. See what I can learn. Notice when I am being a good listener.

2. I can continue noticing when I’m not “with” the person who is speaking and gently bring myself back. I can continue asking myself if I could paraphrase what the speaker has just said.

I remember listening to an interview of someone I considered quite a good listener. Many times she repeated back a few of the last words a speaker had said …mumbled the words a few times as if she were really holding the words tenderly and carefully.

3. I can continue to ask clarifying questions without jumping off to my own story, my judgment, my brilliant piece of advice (unasked for advice-giving is one of the biggest no-no's; listeners can feel like it is an act of one-upmanship).

4. I can become more self aware around obstacles. Notice if there is something which is getting in my way of listening – am I distracted, tired, hungry, am I focused on myself, my to-do list?

I remember one woman sharing in a compassion circle meeting that she simply cannot focus on others- what they are saying, what they need, nothing, when she is in physical pain. That’s good insight. That sort of self-awareness can help the process.

5. And, lastly, a word of compassion. Since we judge our relationships, even our self-worth, by how we are listened to, it might help us to understand that high quality listening is hard to do.

Give ourselves and others a bit of grace. Most of us can get nowhere near high quality super star listening for three hours. We can do it only in exceedingly short spurts.

And…maybe it would be helpful to consider that some of us do active listening in non-traditional ways…running around coffee tables for example.

How might we journey together to the Good Life by becoming better listeners?

(When was a time you have listened or been listened to well? What have you learned about yourself as a listener? Please share your stories and insights with me, love, June)

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