Thursday, 13 June 2013

Are You Listening?

The beginning of this year started so slowly but now wow it has accelerated at full speed and I have had to sometimes force myself to slow down – now I am sitting here with a lurgy – tissues in one hand and sipping warm lemonade, lemon and honey with the other while typing this blog – oh to multi-task!

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Robert McCloskey

Over the last five months I have done a lot of listening – not to say that I have been keeping quiet (!). From attending meetings, forums and social functions I wonder sometimes how much we do really listen to each other.  I'm not talking just about the verbal but also the non-verbal like body language and reading between the lines – when we read articles, Twitter and Facebook comments, and poetry, watch TV and many other media forms. I mean how many of you can tell your friends are not that happy by the pictures, quotes and comments made on this kind of media?  How many of us take messages very personally thinking it’s somehow meant for us only? And how many of us interpret an innocent comment into something much bigger – it can be a mind-field out there!

“It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.”Oliver Wendell Holmes

The last three months has been one of making new contacts, friends, and colleagues – brainstorming meetings, forums, continuing the creative side of me through writing and performing, and the privilege and trust of being taken into confidences. It’s a strange thing when people want to take you into their confidence and you are considered trustful – a privilege in fact. Then there is the judging of what to do with the  information and knowledge you have been given - can it be freely passed on to others, kept to yourself, or discussed with other trusted colleagues and friends and the impact that could have. 

"Just being available and attentive is a great way to use listening as a management tool. Some employees will come in, talk for twenty minutes, and leave having solved their problems entirely by themselves."  Nicholas V. Luppa

Long ago back in my corporate life I used to be a counsellor for performance management and I was very much of the view that any problems and issues that were discussed should be kept within that meeting unless it would become such an issue it would have an business impact on the organisation I worked for or the person I was counselling – this is where I would seek consultation from others. However other meetings would find me making suggestions on how performance could be achieved whether through the right training, practical experience or talking to the right people, getting them noticed (in a good way) and how to change perceptions (which is not an easy thing to do for anyone).  Other meetings would involve talking about their personal lives.  I think I was good at it, I very much enjoyed this aspect of my job and I was able to find creative ways to encourage others without taking the credit for performance improvement when it came (and it always did) because they did it themselves - just needed a little encouragement and believe. I was the voice for my counselees who were being graded on performance needing to liaise with those who the person I counselled worked for, recognising strengths and weaknesses, and managing expectations and being realistic about that person’s gifts and abilities. However, it was one also where the counselee was given the tools, but needed to have the wings to fly themselves. It was their choice. 

 “Every person in this life has something to teach me--and as soon as I accept that, I open myself to truly listening.” Catherine Doucette

However, it should be noted that I was not so wise to my own blind spots! They were after all blind to me and having your weaknesses pointed out is not always a nice thing (although the way it is communicated to you really matters).  It’s easier to look at another person, their problems, issues and relationships and see what is happening than actually being immersed in those problems yourself with all the emotions involved – sometimes we cannot see the wood for the trees! Of course I still have blind spots so if someone wants to point them out to me in an encouraging way ........ Perhaps we should take our own advice given to others more often .... just a thought. 

“The intimacy that arises in listening and speaking truth is only possible if we can open to the vulnerability of our own hearts. Breathing in, contacting the life that is right here, is our first step. Once we have held ourselves with kindness, we can touch others in a vital and healing way.”  Tara Brach

Having recently been trained to be a Lay Chaplain I have seen another side to how important it is just to listen to people – this is a skill that seems to have been lost somewhat in our culture where the loudest voices are heard first and acted on, opinions are thrust upon you and choices are made without detailed discussion, proper debate or consideration.  Being a Lay Chaplain is really just about listening and keeping a conversation moving where relevant and talking about spirituality when led by the person you are talking to. I have only being doing this for a very short time but I have already heard some stories good and sad, those of the everyday and others heartbreaking and poignant full of memories.  Being a Lay Chaplain is my way of giving back to people after my brush with cancer who are very often not been given a choice of where they find themselves, vulnerable and having very different needs.  Some of the people I have met have such positivity and the gift of laughter in adversity that they have inspired me. 

“Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.” David Augsburger

When I was ill with cancer (and before that depression) looking back it was extremely important to me that I had those who could just listen and empathise – not telling me what to do, or judging, because I could figure out what was best for me for myself and the feeling that you are being judged and found wanting rather than being encouraged is not helpful at all. I was lucky I found those people (some I knew and some who were strangers) and it aided those spirits within me to stay positive which is so important when fighting a serious illness. There are people who are ill, those who are caring for people who are ill, people who have a range of issues and problems who just want to be listened too. Particularly in these times of austerity  people do not feel that they are being listened on so many levels – particularly by Governments.

“Listening is a gift of spiritual significance that you can learn to give to others. When you listen, you give one a sense of importance, hope and love that he or she may not receive any other way. Through listening, we nurture and validate the feelings one has, especially when he or she experiences difficulties in life.”  H. Norman Wright

Recently I also did some “Jesus decking” – this is a pack of cards which reflect pictures of the Gospel and cards are chosen to which people are most drawn to. A question is asked of why a particular card(s) has been selected and the listening process starts with interjections where necessary – it’s not about you; it’s about the other person their thoughts, their spirituality and sometimes revealing secrets or a side of person they are only just exploring. The open dialogue and reflection you are given back can have consequences that you may never know about. A seed planted, an issue shared and may be a solution found.

“When someone tells you something big, it's like you're taking money from them, and there's no way it will ever go back to being the way it was. You have to take responsibility for listening.”  Banana Yoshimoto, The Lake

Other confidences that I have had recently have been deeply personal and something I would never divulge to another person or gossip about - and other times have been a kind of mutual supportive counselling giving and taking on each side from friends and colleagues. The one thing I have particularly learned this year is to hold my tongue, think about what I am saying before blurting it out and not fill up the silences. Silences are important but can be uncomfortable.  And then there are the other confidences which have been news I have been given ahead of time (some confidential) and perhaps being used as a sounding board, but is not for me to talk about (although could be hinted about if necessary for  encouragement) - this includes my work but on so many other levels as well.

“You're short on ears and long on mouth.” John Wayne

Research shows that we speak at a rate of about 125 words per minute, yet have the capacity to listen to about 400 words per minute. So what are we doing with that extra space in our minds when someone else is talking? Are we really listening?

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”  Bryant McGill

There is nothing worse than knowing that someone is doing something else while we are communicating with them – looking at their iPods, mobiles, not maintaining eye contact and looking over our heads as if they are somewhere else.  Often I find myself listening but also planning the rest of my day, or muddling through something that has happened or even deciding what you will say next before the conversation has finished!  Sometimes I want to fill a silence and will try to finish the sentence with what I think they are saying (a real fault of mine), worse interjecting half-way through and cutting them off.  Other times I know I would benefit from a “South Islands Concho shell” so not to hog a conversation! A real no, no is to put a meaning to a part of a conversation without considering all that has been said – especially when something said may have hit a personal spot and you mull on that aspect only.  We need to let go of our need to be right or place our ideas about what the other person should be saying or doing, and hear them as if for the first time. This is a pretty hard thing to do.

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Stephen R. Covey

When speaking to people also focus on the body language, tone of voice, and rate of speaking – not just in them but in you too. Look beneath the words to see what feelings and needs are being communicated. You never know what you might find.  Show interest by maintaining eye contact, uncross arms, and ask open questions that take the conversation deeper to find out what really matters to the person you are speaking to – without of course being seen as an inquisitor!  Repeating what you have just heard is also a good idea without asking for clarification you could say, “So what you are saying is....” Show interest.  Effective listening shows you care develop empathy and understanding of another's experience and aids your own relationships with people to thrive.

“ listen first with the ears - then, you wait and listen for what your heart feels - then you consider what they've said - then, you reply ...”  John Geddes

Acting on conversations will involve judgement calls being made and this is where things can become murky –  if a conversation has been one of anger it is better not to react immediately if you can and take some time to consider what has been said – and then a response made, if necessary, when emotions have calmed down.  Sometimes it is what is not said that matters rather than what is.  As I said a mind-field rather than a mine-field!

“The word 'listen' contains the same letters as the word 'silent'.” Alfred Brendel

Others may be part of a group and do not say much at all, it may be they are just taking in what others are saying, do not feel comfortable in group situations and are much better on a one-to-one basis, have a lack of confidence to contribute or find it difficult to get their voice heard from other personalities.  Sometimes it is these people who are listening the most and have valuable insights if only if we give ourselves a chance to listen to them!

“Each of us has one. Each voice is distinct and has something to say. Each voice deserves to be heard. But it requires the act of listening.”  Terry Tempest Williams

Listening to others problems, encouraging and supporting them can be draining on your own emotional intelligence and you need to offload let alone dealing with your own problems and issues which you may want heard as well – that is where my blog and poetry comes in – my therapy, my release – some people run, some people dance, some people play games on Facebook – I like to write.

 “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive.”  BrenĂ© Brown,

There are so many ways that we counsel each other through life, albeit if you are chatting with your hairdresser, taxi driver, friends and colleagues, and also through media – it could just be a stranger at the bus top. There are those who are trained to listen and those who do it informally and those who don’t know they are doing it.  I have been in counselling both through my marriage breakup and through my depression a few years ago – it may have brought up some painful moments but it did make me face aspects of my life and put them into focus.   Generally it is not a counsellor’s job to tell you what they think you should be doing or to make judgements on you as a person but to equip you with tools to deal with issues that are overwhelming you which may be causing problems with your mental health. It was those during my day to day life who were around me I would sometimes offload to or on my blog – and this all fine and dandy along as you give those people a chance to offload too!  Some people just keep things very closely within themselves but there do come times, given the opportunity and in the right circumstances, where they do open up – and this could be to anyone – talking to a stranger can be a good thing rather than to those who know you with preconceived judgements and perceptions.

One friend, one person who is truly understanding, who takes the trouble to listen to us as we consider a problem, can change our whole outlook on the world."  Dr. E. H. Mayo

We all have an influence on each other and we all deserve the privilege of listening and being listened to. It maybe that you say “no I'm not influential” but how do you know this? Sometimes it is something we just don't recognise in ourselves (or even in others), just having a discussion, an offload, sharing of sadness or happiness, a laugh, a smile - the impact of which can have repercussions and reverberations on that other person which no-one will ever know about.   

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Leo Buscaglia

So have we lost the art of listening to each other?  Is it something we can improve on? Could it help all our relationships?  I think so and I’m practicing!

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