“I think she/he needs a good listening to!” – don’t we all?
When someone listens to you, and you feel safe, you express your thoughts and feelings. Your thinking becomes clearer and more powerful, and you feel energised because someone has shown you that you are worth listening to. So, you are valuable.
Effective listening is essential for effective communication. When you listen to someone else, as well as helping that person, you also understand what they need and what makes them tick. This will make working with them in any role or setting much more straightforward.
The challenging things about listening well are not technical. Sitting still, paying attention, giving warm eye contact, asking good questions, and not interrupting or talking about yourself are not difficult because they require years of study. If you “watch people”, you will notice very young women, particularly, taking turns doing this effortlessly and with evident enjoyment for hours on end.
The tricky thing about listening is to decide to do it and to give up, temporarily, what most of us want to do a lot, which is to talk! This need can be so strong that we interrupt, compete, switch off, jump to conclusions, and finish people’s sentences as we rush to speak. When we do, and other people do the same, dialogue becomes very difficult. It is tough when people are upset or angry.
One way time
Consultants, coaches, mentors, and counsellors sell their time and attention and offer one-way listening to another person in exchange for money or another reward. This can be very helpful, especially for senior people who find it hard to be open inside their organisation or to be seen as not knowing the answers. It is helpful in career and other crises where people are preoccupied with their situation and feelings, need outside support and challenge and have nothing to give anyone else.
In its purest form, one-way time can sometimes leave the person with the issue (the client) feeling slightly low. They may imagine that their helper has no problems or issues and that their life is perfect. I prefer to let my client know a bit more about me than that when working this way.
In organisations, one-way time is acceptable but expensive. It is not the most effective way to pass on listening skills to people.
In its simplest form, people take turns listening to each other for perhaps half an hour each way. This simple process will help both parties think more clearly and act more powerfully. It also has some advantages over one-way time. It is straightforward to build in feedback. After each half session, the person in the client role tells the helper what they did that was helpful and how the helper could be more effective next time. You can discuss client skills, too, if you like. Thus, learning and improvement are built into the process. People get closer and more able to trust each other as both parties open up.
There are many ways, see coconsulting and cocounselling, you can use this simple process to improve communication and commitment. It is an excellent way to embed helping and listening skills into the organisation. I have been surprised by how helpful people find it to talk to their colleagues when their colleagues are concentrating awarely on listening. They might get further with a counsellor with twenty years of experience, but they can get a long way with a colleague or a friend.
I once asked a group of people to talk in pairs and take turns about a real problem for ten minutes. I asked them to listen, with delight, but not to say anything. Astonishingly, more than half of the group reported they had made progress with their issue!
Working in groups
The “go round” is very effective. Ask everybody in a small group to share their best thoughts about a topic while everybody else listens. Two or three minutes each is usually enough. This is a lovely way to increase the amount of listening in the organisation. There is more in Nancy Kline’s book.
How do you increase your ability to listen?
My experience suggests that learning techniques will help a bit. It does help to know how to summarise and ask open questions. You may find feedback from people you listen to and seeing yourself on CCTV helpful. However, nothing is as beneficial as being a client where you have time to be listened to. This is the only way to shift the feelings from your life experiences that otherwise stop you from hearing what others say.
For example, I worked with a couple many years ago but wasn’t progressing with the man. He was very successful at work and was having an affair with his secretary. It was only when I got listened to by my counsellor that I realised I was jealous as hell, I was having a horrid time at work, and we had just had our first child.
I get listened to very regularly in two-way settings. This is very effective and only costs time and sometimes travelling.