Listening Well Can Repair the World

Happy New Year to all! This post focuses on the quotations that are the basis of this year’s New Year’s e-card and animation: a series of quotes about “listening.” If you haven’t seen my card, you might want to now

Why quotes about “listening”? I wrote a blog post last year about listening called “Listen as if Your Life Depended on it.” Why another? Because I have continued to ponder the subtleties and challenges of listening well. And because I really think that if we listen well, with love, we can repair the world.

We so often have multiple things going on simultaneously that require our attention. What does it take to focus our attention and to be really present in order to listen deeply? And what is the benefit?

Well, let’s take Dave Isay’s quote: “Listening is an act of love.” If you have not heard Story Corps, I suggest you visit the StoryCorps website, tune into a StoryCorps broadcast on NPR, or go to their YouTube channel and watch a few videos. What I love about Story Corps is that people take the risk to talk to one another about experiences and feelings that really matter to them. I am often brought to tears when I listen. These short conversations are between people of different ages, cultures, places, experiences, all speaking wholeheartedly and allowing themselves to be vulnerable. All of a sudden, they and we are connecting about the stuff of life that really matters. Imagine if more of us had that experience more of the time…

I had a wonderful experience the other day. I was with my husband who is very knowledgeable and curious about religious faith of all kinds. He happily and confidently engages people in dialogue about what they believe, the history of their faith, their religious and spiritual practices. He freely discusses his own faith and normalizes the fact that people have different beliefs. The other day, we encountered two young missionaries from a religion different than our own. I do not listen so easily to people who, I suspect, want to “convert” me. I become tense and suspicious. I stop listening and I shut down. I would not have engaged with these two young women. But my beloved spouse was kind and curious and somehow managed to communicate that we were not interested in being converted, but rather to learn about them, teach them about us and generate understanding. They responded eagerly, asked questions of us, told us about themselves and their faith. I was enriched by the entire interaction. Next time I am in that situation, I hope that I will take a deep breath, remain open, curious and kind, and reach out to engage with the person.

I like Rodney Smith’s quote because it speaks to the heart of consulting and coaching skills: “The most difficult part of listening is learning to leave the other person alone… listening is not about problem solving. It is about the gift of our attention.

In my experience people do not want us to change them, even if we could. Nor do they want us to provide solutions to their problems. Mostly, our fellow human beings are looking for someone to walk beside them. People want to be seen and heard, cared for and held with our attention. Being with someone attentively and making an effort to understand what is important to him/her is “help”, even if some of the time is spent in silence.

Susan Scott, in “Fierce Conversations”, says: “We may succeed in hearing every word and yet miss the message altogether; hearing peoples’ words is only the beginning.” We are such a wondrous species. Our words represent only a fraction of the complex and subtle ways we communicate. Listening well to another person is like eating a sumptuous feast. I can “listen” to the feelings under the words, expressed through the breath, pitch, timbre of the voice. I can “listen” to the person’s energy, expressed through the eyes, hands, intensity of the movement. I can “listen” to the person’s rhythm, expressed, for example, through the slowness or quickness of the body’s gestures.

When we speak about something important and meaningful to us, we offer so much wonderful and rich information. What a gift to those of us who are the listeners, if we pay attention and listen…

How is this relevant for our organizations and workplaces? Think of the collective creativity that might emerge if we allowed people to express themselves safely and we listened with care, commitment and with our whole selves. Imagine the misunderstandings that might be righted if we created the opportunity for people to listen in order to understand one another.

Listening well takes practice and, in my view and experience, is well worth the effort: We can engender compassionate understanding if we create the space to listen with care and curiosity, keeping at bay feelings of being threatened. Listening well requires:

  • Taking a risk – being willing to be vulnerable and staying with the conversation even though we don’t know what will happen as the “story” unfolds. What if the person says something I hate? How do I maintain a stance of compassion and curiosity and care? Being human requires a certain amount of risk and vulnerability all the time. Nothing is certain. There are no guarantees.
  • The understanding that our attention is what is required; sometimes our knowledge and solutions are helpful, but listening well is more about bringing our full and compassionate attention to the person.
  • Taking a deep breath and quieting our minds and bodies so we can pay attention; suspending our own worries and our To Do lists in order to be really present.
  • Allowing ourselves to go below and beyond the words to the feelings and the soulful expression that is the essence of being human.

Stepping forward into dialogue and connection provides an opportunity to enhance our relationships and our understanding of each other and I believe, can result in healing and repair in a hurt world.

Martha Lask’s Blog

Occasional musings about books, articles or tools that might be of interest; I welcome your comments.

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