Listening is not for sissies

The other day a client asked me: How exactly does good listening work?

Actually, it’s quite simple: listening is always about the other person. Always….Listening has something to do with turning towards the other, with openness towards the other‘s world. And with my willingness to do so.

But how do we often listen? We wait, for example, for a certain word to be uttered, a thought, a statement, an involuntary movement of the body, and then we speak – then also about ourselves. We listen in order to speak our own mind, and not completely pay attention to the other person.

“But if I don’t state my point quickly enough, I’ll have forgotten it,” I hear as a counterargument. (A slip of paper to note arguments could help with this.) Or even: “The other person’s thoughts are developing in a direction that I don’t like (in other words: that are too awkward for me to respond to).” This suggests that the other person is not being listened to with your full concentration. Ensuring you don’t miss your own moment is what I call pseudo-listening.

Or the situation when you answer with a bored “Yes, yes,” which means “I don’t care” or even simply, “No.” “Yes, but…”is a reinforcement of this. Here the receiver has listened, but is just waiting for their chance to come back with a counterargument. Here again, you are not fully paying attention the other.

Giving unsolicited advice falls into the same category. We like to be quick to give advice. There are people who unpack their toolbox at such speed that you can’t describe your real issue or problem. When I was going through a complex, conflict-laden phase with my partner at the time, there were friends who gave me good “advice”. “Why don’t you go on holiday alone? Let it rip.” “Leave that man, he’s not good for you.” “Let’s open a bottle of sparkling wine,” (there’s plenty where I live) “and then everything will look much better.” Nice rescue attempts that didn’t help me at the time, but give the toolbox owner the feeling that the issue has been dealt with for the time being. Genuine listening also requires courage. Because human stories are often multi-faceted and intertwined. Some “listeners” are then overwhelmed by the weight of the emotions that they are burdened with.

At that time, I had a friend who, through her wonderful way of listening and her personal restraint, helped me a lot to look at the situation from different angles. She listened actively, so she also listened to the message behind my words (so to speak). She practised the kind of listening that is needed, for example, in Bohm dialogue (I wrote a detailed article on this in Harlekin.Blog). Because complex problems need diversity in finding solutions – there is never only one way.

As I said, good listening is a question of attitude. I focus my full attention on the other person. How does that work exactly? For example, by observing and noticing my thoughts and feelings about what I have heard, without rashly pronouncing them out loud. I know that by intervening I would interrupt, if not stop, the other person’s flow of thoughts. That is why it is important to know what I am doing when I interrupt and speak myself. And that is why it is so important to listen to myself.

When I listen to my inner self, I deal with what thoughts are developing while I am listening to the other person. What exactly am I reacting to? What feelings are emerging? How much of this has to do with the other person, how much has to do with myself? Through listening to myself, I perceive the automatic patterns of perception and thought in my mind. And when I consciously listen to myself, become aware of my thoughts and feelings, I can turn off this autopilot for once. Because when I listen completely, I put myself at the service of the other. When I listen consciously, I put my ego aside in favour of my conversational partner.

Why is such behaviour desirable?

For one thing, we help the other person sort out their thoughts and feelings. Thoughts influence our feelings and when we express our thoughts to a receptive counterpart, our thought construct can also change. We no longer have to circle around the same thoughts and images, we can discover new thoughts. And, if we give the other person the space they need, we see them whole, in all their facets. By listening, we help them discover and realise their potential. Because I believe that the solution to many problems lies within ourselves. Thinking alone can limit me, make me “narrow-minded”. In order to remain open to the world in and around us, we need the other person who listens receptively. And quite honestly: then we would behave exactly as we ourselves would like to be treated, with respect.

Now I hear the doubters: “But there are also those people who talk a lot! I have to stop them.” Or: “There are people who always say the same thing. I can’t just listen to them, I have to say something too! I could give more examples, couldn’t I? I hear the resisters and call out to them: “Listen to me! That’s not what I mean at all! It’s about your attitude and mindset: if you decide to listen to a person, then listen to them completely. And not with the attitude of a victim! And not with the attitude of an unthinking perpetrator either!”

Of course, listening does not mean “shut up and lump it”. If I feel I can help the other person with my intervention, I should do so. For example, I can ask open-ended questions (those are the ones with the “Wh-“ question words at the beginning) to help the other person keep their thoughts flowing. Listening is an active, conscious action. I can summarise what I think I have understood. This gives the other person a chance to check how what they are saying is being received and whether what they wanted to say is being understood. These techniques have been taught and used for decades. 

Simon Sinek put it so beautifully: “Hearing is listening to what is said. Listening is hearing what isn’t said.”

We are supposed to listen much more. It is not enough to claim about ourselves, “I can listen well.” We have to do it. Listening is active action that requires self-awareness and inner strength. So it’s not for sissies!

Original text: HFI
English translation: BCO

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