My 8-year-old son is (as the Scottish say) a wee blether. Which means that the only time he is not sharing his thoughts out loud with me is when he sleeps or reads. This is how it has been since he learned to speak. For the most part I love hearing his funny, insightful, random, wise thoughts. I am entranced by his expressions and gestures. I am engaged by his imagination and curiosity.
He often has me transfixed to his stories, factual, fictional and some that are difficult to distinguish either way. But there are times when yet another conversation about Star Wars, Halo, Harry Potter, insects, dinosaurs, space, snakes, or a bizarre mashup of these subjects, triggers me and I lose interest. My mind wanders off to what I think is more worthy of my attention in that moment. I am often caught out when he asks me a question or shouts “Muuum!” I respond honestly that I got distracted. Sometimes I make an educated guess or cover it up (because I have been down this road many times with him before). And he picks up where he left off or (God help me) he starts again.
Three things are happening here. First, is that I am no longer ‘giving’ attention to my eager conversationalist. Second, I have lost contact with the present moment unfolding and finally I am applying ‘shortcuts’ to make up for it. Me listening to him is critical to our relationship and we all know that it is hurtful when you do not feel heard. Here is what I have learned about listening over the years, personally and professionally as a coach.
Listening is as key a skill in life as speaking. Yet, we place more emphasis, training, and development on speaking. Both are essential tools for learning and navigating the world. Parents are encouraged to talk as much as possible to our babies, and to repeat the noises they make, to teach them about listening and conversation. They listen intently, repeating what we say, often using the same tone even. And we do the same to teach them different words and pronunciations. Much further down the line, arguments ensue about how much one person or the other is listening or not.
Learning to listen exquisitely to the people we care about can save, grow, and strengthen our relationships. Listening exquisitely is to spotlight the other person, tuning in to their wavelength, and listening from their frame of reference. It means that your whole body is listening to their whole body. It is being aware of what lies beyond the words – the speaker’s emotions, needs, and what is not being said. Listening like this builds trust and shows you care.
Giving vs Paying Attention
Think about how you listen to your colleagues, or manager, or a blind date. Now compare that to how you listen, to say, your mother. What about your sister or brother? How do you listen to your partner? Or your child? We listen very differently to each other based on our relationship. In our close relationships we can be guilty of listening half-heartedly or being judgemental.
The inner voice is probably the most active then. It brings back years of what we think we know about the other person. It jumps up and down, pointing, exclaiming, putting pieces together, creating a version of the story that is being told. The next time you are having a conversation with a loved one, take note of how much attention you are giving to the other person, and how much you are listening to yourself.
Our internal dialogue and personal needs distract us from the opportunity to connect with someone and be there in that moment for them, fully. ‘Paying’ attention implies some kind of cost to us, a kind of relationship tax – ‘I have to pay attention to whatever you say because we love each other’. When you find yourself not paying attention to your loved one and getting hooked by your own commentary instead, try flipping it to ‘How can I give my attention to this person to show that I care for them’.
Think of listening as a generous act of love
Take The Scenic Route
Our brains employ mental shortcuts to help us get through life. Imagine having to decide whether you like the person you are living with, every morning you wake up next to them. It would take us far too long to get anything done, and we certainly would not have been able to create the complex social structures that we have now. Our shortcuts are mental maps of the world and our relation to it, based on our experiences, assumptions, biases, needs, and fears.
They help us survive and navigate the world efficiently. These cognitive shortcuts can also be the source of bad judgements and irrational decisions. When it comes to our relationships, the story that we tell ourselves about the other person often takes precedence over what the person is saying or trying to say. You reach a conclusion, make a snap judgement, or guess what they are feeling or experiencing without actually listening to the words they are saying.
Putting aside your stories and listening with fresh intention can help you break old patterns, heal old hurts, and create new possibilities in your relationships. Ask yourself what new thing you observed in your conversations with loved ones recently.
The Present Moment Is A Gift
Have you had a conversation with someone who made you feel like you are the only person in the world in those moments? You might believe that many things contributed to that. I suggest to you that it was the person’s exquisite listening that gifted you such an experience. The most important factor in the outcomes of any talk therapy (counselling, psychotherapy, etc) and coaching is the relationship of the alliance.
The extent to which the client feels accepted, non-judged, and cared for by the coach or therapist determines the outcomes of the intervention. And generous and deep listening is the not-so-secret sauce to that relationship. A seemingly simple, but elusive skill that establishes a bond between them and creates a nurturing environment…so that honest reflection and learning can take place. Imagine what magic you might create for someone by just listening to them.
I hope you go out there and give your loved ones a good listening to