Learning to listen to ourselves, to others, and to life itself is probably one of the simplest, least taught and most crucial, skills we can acquire in life.
Are your conversations time-wasters?
We spend a great deal of time in conversation, and little of it is well and creatively spent. Most conversation is a simply a method of maintaining our relationships just as they are.
As the speaker, you usually talk about something you already know, and, moreover, which you think the other person will approve of. As the listener you try hard to approve, and support. Or as speaker, you say something which you think will prove you are right, or will annoy the other person and as a listener, you try to prove something or annoy them back. That sort of thing. Either way, nothing real is being said.
By opening up to what I like to call Real Talk, and Real Listening, you are gaining access to your creative ability to reach out to others, solve problems, learn new ways of seeing things, and find the joy of communion. At the very least, you will understand yourself, and the other person, a lot better.
Real listening is simple, in that it is an attitude that can be easily learned. It is not always so simple to remember to have the discipline to practice it or stick to it, particularly when you are in a difficult situation.
The attitude underneath Real Listening is one of emptying yourself out of any resistance, just for a little while, and turning your ears, eyes, minds and hearts, towards whatever it is you are intending to listen to.
Implicit in it is an honouring of that person or event, whether or not you agree. Furthermore, it is about doing so without an agenda, without judgment, and without a need to answer back, argue, or do anything about it. Hence the need to empty yourself out first.
It can be as straightforward as breathing three times, and then turning your attention to what someone is telling you. The message is: I am here to listen to you, and during the time I am listening, I’ve got no axe to grind, no opinion to stick to, and no need to be entertained or helped or agreed with. Nor do I intend to think ahead to what may be the consequences to me or to my loved ones, or to decide whether you are right or wrong. For this time alone, I simply want to respect and understand.
If this sounds not so much simple as impossible, remember that there is a limited time. The time frame is very important, because it keeps it safe. You can’t just listen all day without having your say. When the other’s time is up, that agreement is over. Now it’s your turn.
Listening, by the way, is not just listening to people. You could as well be listening to your own physical symptoms, or the whispers of your soul, or the way the wind is blowing politically, or the latest disaster in your life. It is this ability to listen that enables you to understand that whatever is happening can be a catalyst, with information that will help you towards a turning point and a new beginning.
Real talk goes along really well with real listening. Like real listening it begins with an emptying out. You drop any plans, any stories, any expectations of what you are going to say. And then you open a space and let your mind, heart and soul do the talking, such that whatever comes out slightly surprises you.
It was what you knew but might not have told yourself. So it is not same old, same old. It’s not the story you’ve already told to loads of people. It is new and creative and full of life.
As with real listening, just three breaths can do the emptying out. But additionally you need to throw out everything you planned to say. If you have a plan, it means you know what you are going to say. And in that case, what are you going to learn?
Remarkably, the presence of someone who is doing real listening is like a powerhouse of energy that gives wings to what you are saying. When you are truly listened to, the potential of real talk is to go far beyond what you thought you know, through all the resistances you have lived with, and often even on and on to a resolution or an understanding or even a turning point.
This presence doesn’t have to be face to face. Telephone, skype, even email can work. It’s knowing that someone is there who is listening or is going to listen that does the trick.
If you knew you could do this in three minutes, which can sometimes happen, wouldn’t you do it more often?
After real talk and real listening, it helps to be able to exchange experiences with the other person. But this feedback needs to be simple and safe, or the whole co-listening experience loses its power to heal.
Helpful feedback at the end consists of either:
1. Clarifying and reflecting back what the other said (“What I heard you saying between the lines, or in your tone ofvoice or non-verbal messages was…”) You don’t need to repeat everything. You just say what you were left with in a way that leaves the person feeling heard and understood.
2. Or saying how you felt about it (“I felt annoyed,sympathetic, loving, etc.) This is just your feeling, not a hidden judgment as in “I feel that….”
It is unsafe if you start to introduce your own judgments or interpretations, or advice, or approval/rescuing. So for example, it doesn’t work if you:
1. Make interpretations (e.g. “I think this is because of how your mother treated you”)
2. Give advice (e.g. “Why don’t you….?”)
3. Approve/rescue (“ You’re not ugly. You have a lovely smile.”)
4. Disapprove/criticise (“You’re not doing as well as you think”.
Learn to co-listen
Co-listening is a tradition I originally created for Skyros which involves working with a partner in a way that each is given an equal amount of time to talk while the other listens, and to listen while the other talks. The basic format is that one talks and the other listens, then they switch roles, and then at the end they give each other feedback.
Co-listening always requires some training in real talk and real listening, so that it is not just a chat, but a real deep thinking things out in the presence of another.
Some important principles of co-listening are:
• Each must have equal time: not to be varied because someone feels that the needs of one are greater than the needs of the other. About 15 minutes per person and 5 minutes feedback each seems about average. But if short of time, even three minutes each can be great. Better to do it briefly than to skip it.
• Whatever is said is completely confidential
• When talking, you open a space, breathe, and simply wait to see what happens. It is like thinking aloud. When listening, you open a space, breathe, and just listen. You are not doing anything. You are being totally present.
• During the talking and listening, it is advisable for the listener to keep approval statements or sounds to a minimum, and to simply be aware of giving the other full attention. This is because approving or disapproving affects what another person will say, and this gets in the way.
Co-listen whenever communication is important
For some people co-listening has proved so useful that they have carried it on for years in their hometown, sometimes with their original partners and sometimes with others. In a few cases I know of, it has transformed a marriage in which partners had stopped talking to each other on a deep level.
If you are able to introduce it to your work environment, it would certainly transform the dynamics there, unless the structure is too rigid to shift.
It has the advantage of being perfectly safe to be carried out by people with no counselling experience and perhaps even a minimum of sensitivity to others, and also often enables people to go quite deep.
Throughout my adult life, I have always had a co-listening partner, even if not a regular one. It has often been on the phone, or on skype. But I couldn’t do without it. And neither should you.
Get a free PDF of the basic principles for you to practice on your own.