In today’s high-tech, high-speed, high-stress world, communication is more important than ever, yet we seem to devote less and less time to really listening to one another. We are more connected than ever through technology and at the same time the disconnect with ourselves, others and our environment is growing. We need meaningful conversations to help us reconnect, going beyond our egos and our fears to build strong relationships, communities, networks and organisations, so that through collaboration we can begin to co-create a more sustainable future.
Genuine listening has become a rare gift—the gift of time. It helps build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding, resolve conflicts, and improve accuracy. At work, effective listening means fewer errors and less wasted time. At home, it helps develop resourceful, self-reliant children who can solve their own problems. Listening builds friendships and careers. It saves money and marriages.
When you’re told, “Listen!” by someone, most often you think, “I need to hear this.” Listen to your CEO’s instructions; listen to your wife or husband’s rules; listen to the information your friend is sharing.
But listening is so much more than hearing. It’s what happens when we not only open our ears, but also open our minds and sometimes our hearts to another person.
“I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening.”
Larry King – American television and radio host
But who do we turn to in times of listening needs, how can we learn to be better listeners, how can we perfect effective listening to help improve our lives and the lives of others?
Today I have the distinct pleasure of introducing another Guest Blogger, Colin Smith, who is aka ‘The Listener’, an executive coach and confidant, facilitator and speaker.
He is passionate about transforming the way we listen. His calm, attentive and patient way of being, enables you to feel seen, heard and understood. It awakens your thinking and inspires you to empathically listen to yourself and others.
His approach is not about fixing, offering advice (unless asked), or rescuing you. He creates a safe, compassionate place for you to slow down, settle, and be yourself. In this space, you are able to listen to your innermost thoughts and feelings, out of which your true story and answers will emerge.
Colin is going to talk to us the importance of listening and ‘Why Listen’
Or, what’s the point, everyone is talking?
We grow up and live in a society where speaking is revered. Where he who talks most and loudest wins. We have courses galore on speaking and presenting yet little on listening.
If we look at the four mediums of communication, Writing, Reading, Speaking and Listening, research highlights the following:
• The least used medium of writing is used 9% of the time and attracts 12 years of formal training.
• The most used medium of listening is used 45% of the time attracts very little formal training.
“Hang on a minute, I think my ears do me a good service thank you, without the need for any formal training”.
Listening or Hearing, they are different, aren’t they?
I often ask groups a couple of questions.
“Hands up, if you believe you are better than average at listening?”
As you would expect, most of them put their hands up.
“Okay. Now, keep them up if anyone has said to you, “Thank you for listening”, during the last two weeks?”
Most people put their hands down.
Apart from the obvious point that we can’t all be better than average at anything, what is going on here?
The answer is that we can all hear unless audibly impaired, yet only around 10% of us are good listeners.
In the silence that I leave, usually, one person will ask, “But isn’t hearing and listening the same thing?”
We hear from – Hearing is passive, we don’t need to do anything. Its primary function is to alert us and to keep us safe. Hearing interrupts us.
For example, we will hear our name being called out across a noisy restaurant, we hear all sorts of noises when we sleep in a different bed, such as the central heating or planes passing overhead, until we get used to them.
We listen to – Listening is active, we have to intend to listen. Listening enables us to connect more deeply with the person speaking, understand what else is going on for them at that moment and where they are coming from.
The speaker becomes aware that we are listening to them, so they feel heard, feel that they matter and feel validated. This means that they relax more deeply and interestingly, the quality of their thinking improves.
During one exercise, where I play a piece of music one of the participants shared that she could feel the sadness in his voice, not just the words.
Listening changes lives
After a workshop on listening, a young man came up and thanked me. He explained that during the ‘not listening’ exercise, he had seen himself.
He had seen that all the traits of not listening being demonstrated by the person ‘listening’, were just like him.
Such as, supposedly listening with his mobile in his hand, not looking at the person speaking, interrupting and not acknowledging what the person had just said. He was listening to speak, not listening to understand.
He went on, “The experience had also caused me to question my behaviour at work with my team. So I have decided to change three things. Whenever I go into a conversation I will make the point of turning my mobile to silent and putting it out of sight. I will give them my undivided attention and keep my eyes on their eyes throughout the conversation”.
He followed up with me via email and said that on reflection his not listening behaviour was impacting his personal life as well. He said that he had sat down with his wife that evening and apologised for not listening to her and their six-year-old son. He promised that from now on he would listen more actively”.
I have no idea of the outcome, but I do know his future looks brighter, both at work and at home. If he can listen more actively, each of them will feel heard and valued by the other.
Arriving at the checkout to pay for my food, I was greeted by the usual, “Hi, how are you?”
I replied, “I am fine thank you”, and looking her in the eyes asked, “How are you?”
She replied, “Fine, thank you”, and scanned my first item.
Then looking back at me, she said, “Not really”.
Keeping my gaze, I say, “Oh” and left it hanging in the air.
“No, my boyfriend is being very difficult. We broke up a week ago and since then he has been bad mouthing me and putting up pictures on social media.”
I continued to hold contact with her eyes, she went on, “It has got so bad I had to talk to my teacher, and now we have the Police involved. My parents return from holiday in three days, so I think I am going to be okay”.
That was it, a brief moment in time. I said nothing, just deeply listened, and it enabled her to share something to a stranger. I have no idea of the outcome but know that it took some pressure out of what was building up inside, and maybe helped her to breathe a little easier and make it through the next few days.
In “Lost Connections”, Johann Hari’s recent book, he refers to the connection between loneliness, and anxiety and depression. And how loneliness can be the trigger.
As we all know too well, we can feel lonely in a crowd, be that an office, a party, or even a social gathering. Loneliness, among many factors, can be a symptom of not feeling heard, not fitting in, not being good enough, or not feeling valued.
We try and hide it through our addictions, alcohol, work, drugs, sex, and social media. But we can never get enough, we can never fill the hole we have inside.
Each ‘fix’ numbs things out for a while until the feeling returns. Then we have to take more of the ‘fix’ to numb things out.
What we are missing, and what we are yearning for? I believe it is for more deep and meaningful conversations. Conversations, which are not about the weather, celebrity gossip, or what is on the television tonight.
Rather, conversations about our feelings, our challenges, our hopes and fears, and what matters to you. Sometimes these turn out to be conversations that you have never had before.
There is an exercise that you can complete together, as a couple. It consists of 36 questions plus a 4-minute eye gazing exercise at the end, which if done correctly predicts that you would fall in love with each other.
In looking at the questions, where you both answer the questions, each person taking their turn to speak first, I can begin to see why. Each question enables you to learn something meaningful about the other, for example, “What is your most treasured memory?” and, “When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?”
Whether or not you do end up falling in love is another matter, what I like about this idea is that it causes us to be vulnerable, to open up and share, to feel heard, to be validated, to understand another human being. And all of which is for what we are deeply longing.
Could we ask similarly deep questions in the workplace, could we have more meaningful conversation? Could we ask questions that would evoke vulnerability, empathy, sharing, connection collaboration and relationship?
“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.”
David Augsburger, Author of Caring Enough to Hear
What is the impact of not listening on the business?
There is growing evidence that companies don’t care for their people. In the US it is reported that 7 out of 8 US workers feel they work for a company that does not care about them. Globally, Gallup reports that 70% of workers say they feel disengaged.
This can lead to
• Disparate teams.
• Duplication of effort.
• Missed information.
• An unsafe working environment.
• Avoidable mistakes.
With the impact across the business of
• Less connection.
• Just doing my hours and that’s it!
• Less discretionary effort and thinking for the company.
• More bad-mouthing, dishonesty, isn’t it awful.
• Less trust and a growing toxic culture.
• Individuals becoming less focused on the business.
• Feeling stressed, values not aligned, disillusioned.
• A knowing that fear is keeping me here.
There are also deep issues happening at a personal level.
• Feelings of isolation, uncertainty, less confidence.
• No one to talk to or to confide in about how I am feeling or what is happening in my life.
• Potential for being on long term sick.
With the personal impact
• Rising levels of mental health, stress, suicide, depression, and loneliness.
• A continued increase in divorce and erosion of the family unit.
• A growing feeling of disconnection from society, people, life and sadly nature and the planet.
What to do?
Listen first. Listen to each other. Listen more.
Take the opportunity to complete a simple eleven-minute listening exercise.
You can use a timer to keep this exercise focused. This could be with your work colleague, your partner or friend, or even your child.
1. Begin with one minute of silence, with your eyes closed, as this forces you inward.
2. Face each other and look at the other in silence for about a minute or longer if it feels right. Maintain eye contact throughout, become aware of your breath as you look at them, and allow any thoughts to arise and to pass.
3. Agree who will go first. The listener asks the speaker by name, “X, what would like to talk about?” As there are no rules, the speaker can share as much or as little as they want.
4. They will have the opportunity to talk uninterrupted for three minutes. If they stop talking before the three minutes are up, allow them to sit in the silence. You will be surprised how often they will talk some more. If they think they have finished, and they look at you, gently ask, “What else?”
5. The listener says nothing throughout but will give the other their undivided attention and actively listen. Maintain eye contact (even when the speaker looks away so that when they return to you they will find you still looking at them), no interrupting, and avoid thinking about what you may say when it is your turn.
6. When the three minutes are up, swap around.
7. In the final minute, look at the other, take a deep breath in and breathe out, then each of you shares one thing that you appreciate about the other. Make this appreciation about who they are, not what they do.
NB. At first, the idea of talking for three minutes can seem daunting, afterwards, you will realise it went quickly and it did not seem like three minutes. It will also feel unusual, yet supportive, to have been able to speak freely without interruption.
“We are dying to be heard, literally and figuratively”.
So, Why Listen?
Because feeling heard matters and makes a huge difference.
Who will you have a meaningful conversation with today?
You can contact Colin Smith via LinkedIn or by email:
colin dot smith AT dexteritysolutions dot co dot uk (removing all the spaces)