As a trained counsellor and career guidance practitioner, I like to think I have very good listening skills. And put me in a quiet room with a client in need of support, and yes, I probably do. However, I am very aware that in other workplace situations, I don’t offer the same quality of listening, and I wonder what would happen if I did. I suspect that I would find work more rewarding, since the highlights of my week usually relate to connecting with people. Maybe it is the same for you.
So how can we learn to listen?
There are several levels of listening that can be offered, from superficial listening (appearing to listen but not really paying attention) through attentive listening (listening carefully to the words) then active listening (reflecting back the thoughts and feelings) and finally deep listening (listening with all our five senses to tune into the emotions that lie beneath the surface).
In a counselling/guidance setting we are aiming for the deeper levels of listening, and we are trained to use active listening skills to help us get there. With practice we get better at noticing body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and pace, as well as the words that are chosen. Reflecting back what is heard and sensed without trying to steer the conversation is a discipline; it is much harder than it sounds. Listening without judgement can also be challenging at times. However, listening without steering or judging frees us up to truly empathise instead of thinking about what advice to give, question to ask or information to share.
Deep listening gives the speaker the space the they need to really express themselves, but more than that, it is an experience of being emotionally held by someone who “gets” you, and it can be very moving and affirming. To open up requires trust and we are only like to do it if we are not being judged, if we feel there is a kindly acceptance of our inner most thoughts and fears.
Of course, there are many barriers to deep listening, and most of them have to do with thinking too much about ourselves and our own needs. All of the following can be roadblocks to listening:
– Thinking about how to respond
– Planning what direction to take the conversation in
– Thinking about how to persuade someone to change their point of view
– Thinking about other tasks that are competing for attention
– Feeling bored
– Evaluating what is being said (is it true, do I agree?)
– Managing the time
As soon as we start thinking about these thing we are no longer fully focused on listening, and the quality diminishes. We are partly listening but we are not so tuned in to everything that is being expressed.
Generally, the more stressed we are, the more buzz and chatter is in our minds and the less we are able to listen. If you thinking about an email you mustn’t forget to send, you are not truly listening. If you are evaluating your own performance or criticising yourself, again, you aren’t truly listening.
Meditation has a lot in common with deep listening. When we meditate we are focusing our attention on one thing (often the breath, the body or an object). We are noticing the thoughts that pop into our mind, but trying not to latch onto them. We gently bring our mind back to whatever is the object of our attention whenever it wonders.
Active listening is much the same, except that the object we are focused on is the speaker. As we listen thoughts may pop into our heads, and we notice that but try not to get involved in our own thoughts. We may experience bodily sensations, especially if we have an emotional reaction to the speaker, and again we just notice and accept that without analysing at this point (we might want to do that afterwards!)
Practicing mediatation helps to develop powers of concentration, the ability to accept ourselves without judgement and it can free the mind of some of the clutter of thoughts and stories that prevent good listening. Likewise, practicing good listening us develop self-awareness and an open acceptance of others, listening without judgement. It disciplines us to focus on another rather than ourselves. For a really good listening session, it is essential to come with a clear mind.
Of course, it is not possible to be in deep listening mode all the time. If you are teaching or chairing a meeting, you have to give information and instructions, and manage the time. If your meeting has a purpose, then you have to think about how best to achieve that purpose. You will inevitably be focused on tasks a lot of the time.
But there are many opportunities to use deep listening too, in both formal meetings and informal interactions. A colleague may be offloading about their day or sharing a problem, an employee may be struggling with a new challenge or finding it difficult to accept change, or a group may be experiencing some conflict. These are all situations that benefit from a good listener.
Real listening can radically change workplace relationships by making people feel genuinely heard and cared for. In tough times, when everyone is stressed, deep listening is harder to do, but it it is even more needed. So, my mission this week is to see how many opportunities to listen I can find.