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The Art of 'Listening' as a Developmental Practice
Usually starts with 'hearing', goes way beyond that and practicing it might just change your life
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I had a different article in draft for this week, but I got completely side-tracked by the wave of reflections sparked by reading a LinkedIn post from Laurence Barrett - whose work and provocative nudges I follow and appreciate - and which went like this:
Listening is overrated.
My first analyst was a listener and she was very good at it. She would stare unblinking at me and nod appropriately when I paused. She would occasionally punctuate her rapt attention with small approving sounds or perhaps ask another probing question when the silence became unbearable. She would offer occasional interpretations which were very clever but emotionally dead. She spoke in the same soothing tones as the generic voices in meditation podcasts.
However, analysis with her was a difficult and disturbing experience. I was unable to draw her into a real conversation. She was unmoved by me and in every session she reminded me that I was alone in the room. I feel like a bug under a microscope. From time to time I saw a flicker of emotion, but her consummate ‘professional objectivity’ allowed her as a rule to repress any feelings that I managed to evoke in her. In working with her, I knew that I did not matter.
My sessions with her reminded me of why I had entered psychotherapy in the first place. It was a familiar feeling. I became aware of a strong transference to a narcissistic parent, absorbed with her own needs and process, but I was not at that time sufficiently confident to voice that interpretation. Eventually I just left and found someone better able to engage in the conversation I needed. I was able to make this more suitable ‘transferential object’ laugh and (once or twice) shed a tear. I discovered that the experience of relationship mattered a great deal more to me than the experience of just being ‘listened to’.
I am not criticising listening in itself. Listening is an essential foundation for relationship. It is in paying attention to another that we can open up the possibility of relationship in the first place, but the listening is still just a foundation. We listen SO THAT we can respond and in that response begin to deepen our understanding in a virtuous circle. Relationship is mutual.
Without relationship, listening is simply a distant experience of alienation and separation. If we are unable to create the mutual ‘call and response ’of relationship, with all its messy confusion, we become Echo in the myth of Narcissus. We will simply fade away and turn to stone, as the listener hears us, but is unwilling or unable to really connect with us. If we only listen, the need for a meaningful relationship is unrequited. Listening can then become destructive and narcissistic.
As coaches we must learn to listen, but we must always remember that we listen in the service of relationship. That is where the real magic happens. Listening for its own sake is overrated.
My immediate reaction reading this was: “I can see where Laurence is coming from and completely agree with his core message around the importance of relationship in coaching/therapy but still, Listening is NOT overrated! If anything, it’s UNDERrated!”. The constructive (and instructive) exchange that followed in the comments on that post made me realise that I have built for myself what might be an unusually broad definition of this word, one that I think holds real implications for life-long growth.
So let’s explore Listening (with a capital L) - as a capacity of tuning into self, others and the world - versus listening (as the day-to-day ability to make sense of what others are saying and respond appropriately). We might even discover that hearing - the biological capacity to perceive sound - is often a start, but not an absolute prerequisite of Listening.
Have you ever found yourself telling someone else, in the heat of an argument: “You’re not listening to me!”. What exactly did you mean by that? In all likelihood, the person did hear you, and yet, you didn’t feel as if they were really getting you. Your real message didn’t seem to cut through. Your needs or requests didn’t seem to be acknowledged. As a result, you didn’t feel validated, or understood and very likely you didn’t feel they responded in the way you hoped or expected them to. You likely felt out of sync with the one you were hoping would listen. And, if you are anything like me - or, for that matter, like most humans on the planet - not feeling listened to must have hurt.
Oxford Dictionary defines listening as:
“take notice of and act on what someone says; respond to advice or a request” and
“make an effort to hear something; be alert and ready to hear something”
Intentionality, effort and relationship seem to be embedded in the very definition of listening. By contrast, hearing is simply:
“perceive with the ear the sound made by (someone or something)” and
“be told or informed of.”
Hearing is a biological fact. But it’s not a guarantee for listening. It’s not even an absolute prerequisite of it, given that deaf people are actually better at some aspects of listening - such as reading body language - than hearing people. Whole books have been written exploring the effective communication lessons the hearing could learn from the deaf. So if listening is not the sole remit of those endowed with hearing, what is it all about then? I’ll argue there are multiple layers and dimensions to listening, all of which are hugely important for our becoming more conscious, more mature, wiser human beings. Let’s have a look at each in turn.
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Listening as Foundation of Relationship
Early on we learn that listening is attunement. There is a special feeling that comes with being listened to. A connection. A sense of being held. A knowledge you are not alone. We feel it when it’s there and we surely feel it when it’s not. There are different layers of this type of inter-personal listening - from the small ‘l’ listening - as in “I understand what you are saying and your arguments make sense” - to the capital “L” Listening - as in “I can feel you with every fibre of my body and you are not alone”.
Growing up, my maternal grandmother, who lived with us and was the light of my early life, was my teacher in Listening. I remember coming from school and finding her sitting in her small room, her hands always busy sewing or mending some piece of clothing my sister or I had torn (again!) in our wild games. If her arthritis didn’t bother her much that day, she’d be in a good mood and I’d find her singing some old Romanian love song from the 30s - the years of her youth. If she was in pain, she’d work in silence.
Whichever way she might have been feeling, she would always put aside her work to look at me the moment I entered her room and I could feel wrapped up in her smile as in a warm blanket on a cold rainy day. All she had to do was ask: “How was your day, my sweet darling?” and stories would pour out of me. Happy stories, sad stories, silly stories, small victories, annoying teachers, broken friendships, mended friendships. There was nothing I couldn’t tell her and nothing that she couldn’t receive.
She would look me in the eye - her whole, undivided attention on me. She would nod, ask more questions, celebrate my victories and empathise with my frustrations. She would pick up on cues beyond my words - in my body language, my energy. She’d often ask a question about something I hadn’t said but was feeling. She’d rarely give advice, and when she did it was only if I asked for it. Under her loving gaze, I always felt like the most important person in the world. She never gave a hint that she’d rather be somewhere else or do anything else other than raptly listen to my childhood chatter. Years later, she would listen as intently to my troubled teenage fears, stories of first loves and crushing heartbreaks. And still, she would never judge or give unsolicited advice.
Only much later did I realise how rare that quality of Listening really is and what a priceless gift it is to have experienced it so early on in life. My grandmother’s Listening was the most solid proof of unconditional love I could imagine and it formed in me a foundation of self-esteem and self-compassion that served me well through some of the darker valleys of my later life. She also gave me a model for what a Listener is, which I have strived to take in my coaching, facilitation work and life to the best of my abilities.
Three decades later, a client of mine offered a word that was meant as a compliment for me - one of the most precious I have ever received - but I knew in fact was the best description of my grandmother’s essence: un-dissappointable. Someone who Listens with unconditional positive regard for the person in front of them, fully present, with no judgement and completely connected to the humanity of another.
When I’m Listening, my thoughts slow down and my senses open wide. I feel I can take in the other person through my eyes, ears and whole body. I pick up subtle cues that would otherwise escape me. I feel a heart connection that’s not readily accessible in the hecticness of every day. I ‘hear’ what they are not saying - the flare of emotion, the anxiety hanging, like a loose thread, on the last word of a slightly rushed sentence. My intuition is alive and the next curious question flows out of me, effortlessly.
When I’m Listening, I’m comfortable with the seeming awkwardness of pause, of a reflective moment, of silence in a conversation because in that state of Listening linear time disappears and I tap into that mysterious plane of time called Kairos. I find myself in no rush to be anywhere else other than exactly where I am (and with who I am) at that moment.
I wish I could say I am that kind of Listener most of the time, but that would be a lie.
I often reflect - with no small amount of guilt - that as a mother I often fall short of Listening to my own daughter the way grandma Listened to me. When I am tired, worried, lists of pending tasks tugging at my attention, I find myself slipping into listening - enough to understand how her day went, just enough to ask a relevant question about the latest instalment of her tumultuous relationship with her best friend, whom she loves dearly but with whom, as eight-year-olds often do, she also fights mightily to the point where their friendship seems either doomed or destined to last for eternity at least once every week and sometimes from one day to the next. I find myself distracted, nodding in agreement just as my thoughts have gone elsewhere. And then the guilt strikes!
How did Grandmother sit there in rapt attention, all those years ago, as I recounted my own school stories, never pausing to take a breath, just like my little girl does? It’s still a mystery to me (and perhaps a testament to her wisdom and boundless patience) that she could sustain that quality of Listening day after day, for years. Or maybe this gift is reserved for grandmothers, while we, mothers, are playing catch-up? I clearly still have a LOT of work to do.
Despite the imperfect nature of my practice, I am comforted in the knowledge that, thanks to her, I am deeply aware of the difference between listening and Listening. I can catch myself slipping from the first into the latter. And noticing yourself falling back, as my wise friend and fellow researcher Valerie Livesay, would say, is a fundamental part of development. Here’s a fun podcast episode we did exploring this very topic:
As you read all of this, what does that difference feel like for you? Can you sense when you are being listened to or Listened to? How does your body feel different when you are Listening with your whole being versus mere listening? What impact are you noticing in each case?
While listening as a relational foundation is complex in and of itself, I believe this is not the only kind of listening. Can you truly Listen to another if you don’t Listen to yourself?
Listening to yourself
Most often we think of listening as something we give or receive from others. How about something we give ourselves?
How do you go about listening to the subtle cues your body gives you when you’ve asked too much of it? Are you attuned to its aches and pains, do you notice when you are hungry, or tired, or when your irritation from a hectic day at work wires you up so you start becoming impatient or snappy at home? How about listening to that nagging sense of discontent, of something being off, of not really feeling happy or fulfilled with what you are doing, of needing a change?
Our body and our less-than-conscious mind talk to us all the time, but we are often not good listeners. In a recent study on the causes, catalysts and stages of burnout, Nick Petrie and his team identified “ignoring the signs” as a distinct step in people’s slide down that slippery slope to complete break-down. In fact, it is THE step that precedes the actual breakdown and Nick describes it as:
“their body was sending signals that something needed to change. They were tense, irritated, exhausted. But they couldn’t slow down – there was too much to do.”
We often treat our bodies as mere vehicles to carry our brilliant brains around. When in fact, our bodies are an endless source of insight - if only we listened!
As coaches, we work hard to learn to listen to our clients but sometimes pay less attention to the powerful messages that come through our intuition in a coaching session. It is those inner signals that might give us pause, give us cues to what might be left unsaid, floating in the space between us and the client. That knot in your stomach, that emotion arising from nowhere, which might not even belong to you, that vague sense of anxiety or stuckness that so powerfully mirrors the client’s share about their own blockers. By listening to ourselves, as well as them, we might hear more, sense more, and become more able to witness the process as it is unfolding, all while being present in the content of the conversation.
Another powerful way of listening to ourselves is by paying attention to the gifts our unconscious brings us during sleep. Jung in particular has given us a treasure trove of wisdom about the value of dreams and dreaming, the exploration of which goes well beyond my expertise (or the scope of this article). In more recent times, and from a more practical and accessible stance, writer and dream teacher Robert Moss suggests that - approached with curiosity and a playful mind - dreams might be
“sources of guidance, healing and creativity beyond the reach of the everyday mind”.
His work (which I highly recommend to those of you who are open to tapping into non-cognitive sources of meaning-making and do so playfully), offers a simple and accessible self-inquiry process to help us actively learn from our dreams. He suggests we might experiment with writing down our dreams, giving them titles (treating them like fragments of a story, which might or might not make sense, but we might assume it holds value and meet it with curiosity) and invites us to ask questions such as -
“what did I feel when I woke up from that dream?”; “what intrigues me about this dream?”; or “what action might I take in real life to honour this dream”.
Nerding out on dreams may or may not be your cup of tea, so feel free to ignore this avenue of self-exploration if your rational mind doesn’t feel up for play. I for one, while being a highly cognitive being, have found enormous value in monitoring my dreams and, after more than a decade of keeping a dream journal, I can credit significant dreams with having helped me make some major decisions, given me precious insights about significant relationships, helped prepare me for important events and even solved problems that had stomped me in waking life. Given all the value I have found in my own oniric life, I could not ignore it as one powerful way of self-listening - I do believe at times our inner voice talks even louder when we are asleep.
This wraps up our little foray into listening to self but doesn’t conclude our exploration of listening as a multifaceted, beautiful, complex capacity we can all practice and get better at.
Listening to life (call it system, if you will)
I credit my dear friend, Veronica Brejan with being one of the most powerful developmental catalysts in my life (you can listen to us unpack our friendship in this podcast episode). She introduced me to the idea of “dancing with life”.
Dancing with life assumes an ease in engaging with everything that life throws at us. It invites a sense of equanimity, an acceptance of impermanence, a constant nudge to not get too attached to the good times and also remember the bad times are transitory. It also involves an intentionality, a sense that life - comprising not just what happens to you, but all the systems you are embedded in - is like an energy field you can attune to, sense into and engage with.
I’ve been experimenting with ‘dancing with life’ for the past decade and I’m discovering my ‘moves’ and ‘sense of rhythm’ have improved, and also noticing how I can get clumsy, forget the steps and find myself wrestling with life, particularly when I stop listening to it.
What does it mean to ‘listen to life’?
Listening to life has emerged, for me, as a pre-requisite for being able to ‘dance with it’. It’s become something I practice and it involves paying attention to the small things and then getting curious and asking relevant questions.
Often, this Listening is about the synchronicities and the people who cross my path at a particular point in time - what might emerge from this encounter? What has this person got to teach me (particularly if I find myself either drawn towards or triggered by them in some way)?
As an example of listening for synchronicity, you can tune into the podcast episode I recorded with Mike Vierow, and hear the story of how we met right at a time when I had a vision of doing my PhD studying leaders’ vertical development during leadership programs, and he was exploring adult development in service of an executive program he was leading. We met in London, attending a course on said developmental tool. He - the only Aussie in the group - turned out to live in Brisbane - 100k from where I was going to relocate with my family in just a few short months. He also happened to be the dean of a brilliant, long-form cross-sector/cross-industry leadership program, with a strong appetite for research and for trying things never done before. It was an intellectual and collaborative match made in heaven! And yet - one less conversation at tea time and we might just as easily have walked past each other. I - the typical introvert in networking settings - distinctly remember feeling a nudge of curiosity to learn more about this guy and overcoming my natural impulse to stick with the people I knew and instead reaching out and engaging him (another introvert) in conversation. What made me do that? I guess it was simply paying attention to a tiny nudge from life.
Another angle on listening to life is something that Bill Torbert beautifully calls “listening into the dark” - which he considers a cornerstone of his ‘action-inquiry’ practice - a way of living where we balance actions with curiosity constantly, checking in on our and others’ assumptions, taking what Ron Heifetz calls ‘a balcony’ view on our and others’ behaviours - seeking to notice the process, as much as the content of our interactions.
Listening into the dark can help us stay attuned to the relational space between people, sensing into broader systemic trends and patterns that are so easy to miss as we get bogged down in the nitty-gritty of day-to-day life. It can be as simple as reflecting on why you just reacted a certain way in a triggering conversation or wondering what might be the story behind this team member’s views in a particular meeting - or as complex as seeking to illuminate patterns in a whole system (Dave Snowden’s and Joan Lurie’s work fall nicely into this latter category, in my view).
If you have managed to read this far, I thank you for sticking with me through what has been a bit of a winding path - part personal anecdote, part research bits and bobs, part references to practices that took us a bit further, beyond the comfortable realm of cognitive knowing.
If anything, I hope this prompted you to reflect on your own understanding (and practice) of Listening. Ultimately, what I’m suggesting, is that this IS, above all, a first/second and third-person practice. It is a muscle we can train to better attune to ourselves and our needs/dreams/challenges - to others, by becoming true space-holders for them as they find their way through life’s messes - and ultimately to the wider world we are all part of.
If this kind of multi-faceted, intra/inter-personal and systemic listening became a skill we all put more work into, how many more constructive conversations might we have? How many instances of judgement and polarisation might be tempered by reflective silence or a well-placed, curious question?
I truly believe listening - defined as broadly as I did here - can be a life-changing habit. And I also believe this kind of Listening is underrated! I can’t wait to Listen to what you think!
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