Listen

Listening can be the most valuable thing you might ever do. Listening can make all the difference. To you and to the person to whom you are listening.

To listen, perchance to learn. If you are blessed with a functional ear or ears, then listening should be the easiest thing in the world. Yet learning to listen well can prove surprisingly challenging. Your hearing is a sense that is always active. Hearing can snap you out of deepest sleep into instant alert at an unexpected sound. To listen – and moreso to listen well – is a skill that needs to be honed.

Most people you meet would like nothing more than to get what is bothering them off their chest, and will be only too delighted to have the opportunity so to do. Good listening can make so much difference. All the more delightful for those doing the unburdening is that rare feeling that they are being listened to, that their words are landing, that the listener truly understands.

To listen well is not as easy as just allowing the other person to say their piece. There is so much more that a good listener brings to the conversation, and so much value that a good listener can gain from it. Writing about How to be a better listener in The New York Times, Adam Bryant stresses the centrality of empathy to good listening:

“Listening, done well, is an act of empathy. You are trying to see the world through another person’s eyes, and to understand their emotions. That’s not going to happen if you are judging the other person as they’re talking. It will dampen the conversation, because you will be sending all sorts of subtle nonverbal cues that you have an opinion about what they’re saying. If you go into the discussion with the main goal of understanding their perspective, free of any judgment, people will open up to you, because they will feel they can trust you to respect what they are saying.”

A masterclass in listening with compassion and empathy

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Would you like to see a perfect example of listening as an act of empathy? If so, I recommend you spend an hour listening to Shereen Daniels in her powerful and moving video interview with Rosey Jarvis of The Happiness Index. In this June 2020 conversation, Shereen discusses the deep emotional impact of the killing of George Floyd on her, and on black people in the workplace.

The value of listening with compassion and empathy is a central theme here, as I wrote in To listen with compassion and empathy:

Shereen’s advice to any non-black person who would like to be an ally is simple: “Ask some questions with the genuine intent to listen.”

Listening is vital. Now more than ever. Shereen suggests that the listener should approach these conversations almost as an “out of body experience”. They should let the speaker express themselves fully, no matter how painful or discomfiting their words. Above all, the listener should not interject or risk turning the conversation back onto themselves and their own experiences and opinions.

This video allows Shereen the space to speak her truth. It also gifts us a perfect example of what it is to listen with genuine intent. Throughout, I was struck not only by the raw emotional power of what Shereen has to say, but also by the simple power of what Rosey does not say. Rosey asks Shereen just three questions, then gives Shereen’s words the freedom to breathe. Such perfectly-judged lightness of touch and openness to listen is rare indeed. A few days after the video was published, Shereen posted a LinkedIn update that perfectly describes what Rosey brings to this conversation: “Without realising she delivered a masterclass in what it means to listen with compassion and empathy.”

Listening is catching

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Listening is a skill that cannot be perfected. Even good listeners know deep down that they can do it still better.

“Listening is a skill that we could all do with sharpening.” So says Annalisa Barbieri in her article ‘Be interested, be curious, hear what’s not said’: how I learned to really listen to people. I would recommend that you read and reread this article, and seek to learn from it. Looking back over her 13 years as The Guardian‘s agony aunt, she shares her key learning about listening:

“The good news is that listening is catching. If you feel listened to, it connects you to that other person, and those bonds grow. They, one hopes, will listen to you in turn.”

I love these words. Listening is catching. It is catching in the sense that it is contagious. But I think that listening is also catching in the sense that the listener can glean so much wisdom and understanding if they listen closely, and with compassion and empathy. People are always telling you more than they or you realise. Annalisa says:

“Listening, I discovered, wasn’t just about waiting for the other person to stop talking, or asking good questions, or even not interrupting. It was about really hearing what the other person was saying, and why they were saying it. Being interested, but also curious. Sometimes that means looking for what’s not said, what’s left out, which words are used to mask emotions that are hard to acknowledge. Likewise, good listening is about approaching what has been said as if you’ve never heard it before. Put simply, it’s about paying attention.”

Gentle reader: Listen to what is going on around you today. Listen not just to what those you encounter you are saying to you, but try also to tune in to what they are really trying to say. If you encounter silence, listen intently to that silence. Even silence can have a message for you. And when another soul speaks to you, listen with compassion and empathy.

May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.

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