Listening, listening, listening…

For the past year I have been thinking about listening. I have tried to write about it too. Realising that when we speak of listening it can so easily sound like a cliche. It’s hard to say something about listening that’s not obvious.

And a lot is said about listening. In every book you read on leadership, listening and the importance of listening tends to be mentioned somewhere. Most of the coachees I have worked with have told me that they need to listen better. In role plays people will notice how not listening meant they missed important data and missed an opportunity to connect with the person in front of them. When you ask people to summarise their learning from development programmes listening tends to be in the top three.

It’s one of those things, which is perhaps, more often noticed by its absence than by its presence. We can see when people aren’t listening, we can even hear it while on the phone to another person. When we are really being listened too, we know, it is a feeling that can make us come alive and feel connected, it also enables us to change. It’s exciting to really be listened too, it is a little bit like falling in love.

Listening on the other hand can be somewhat frightening, as Carl Rogers points out it asks us to for a moment put our own beliefs aside and when we really listen we open ourselves up for change, who knows how a new perspective might challenge ours. It is also not what we have been rewarded for in organisations, how does someone who listens show who they are and what they are going to do for the organisation; and how do we know that what they bring is theirs.

I recall a participant, a senior manager, in a mentoring programme who said that he made many decisions in his role, many of those were critical to the organisation and involved large sums of money, yet the hour that he was most anxious about every month, was his mentoring session. He was the mentor, and as he took an hour to really listen to his mentee he knew he had no control, he could be taken by surprise, there was no roadmap, all he could do was listen and figure out his way.

He echoed something we saw in most mentors on that programme, they tended to come in thinking that what they would do was what they were good at ‘explaining to people how to do things’; about two hours into their training they would start to get anxious, they would start to realise that what they had signed up for was a practice of listening and asking questions and more listening. They would have to let go of control and follow their mentee, and they would need to open themselves up to change

Perhaps that’s pointing towards the challenge in listening, it isn’t hard to  do, it isn’t that we don’t know we need to listen, it’s that we are hesitant to let go of control and step into the unknown. We don’t need to learn how to listen, we don’t need to be told that listening is helpful, we just need to practise stepping into that unknown. Initially we may experience that when we do really listen we may come out unharmed, not unchanged, but unharmed. That is the first step, we may later appreciate the experience too… And we need to take that first step.

One Response to Listening, listening, listening…

  1. I guess there is a distinction between listening and really hearing something… we can pretend to listen but not hear… I like your point about “stepping into the unknown”, it is not just “listening”, it is about letting what you hear permeate through your being, letting it play with you, and you play with it…

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