‘You’re not LISTENING!’
How many times have we heard that frustrated cry?
In my case, it was most often as a parent of teenagers. Frequently, hand on heart, I probably wasn’t! If you’re juggling job, home and children, really listening to someone can seem like a luxury that there isn’t time for. You’ve got time to hear the essentials – but even then, sometimes we are guilty of hearing what we expect to hear rather than listening to what is actually said.
‘But I TOLD you that it’s a gala this week not just training! I TOLD you I’d be out late!’
‘No, you didn’t.’
‘Yes, I did!’
Cue grumpy silence in the car and an evening off to a bad start.
There are also the times when we patiently try to explain that of course we’ve LISTENED, we just don’t happen to AGREE that it would be a great idea to host a sleepover this weekend for the entire rugby team or…………. (fill in the appropriate exorbitant teenage demand!)
Hence, as listeners, we can look somewhat unreliable, both with reason and without – and it can seem like it doesn’t matter. Life grinds on and we survive.
Let me compare listening with sleep. Sometimes we get quality sleep and sometimes we don’t. Life grinds on and we survive. I’m sure, however, we all know how much better we feel when we’re sleeping well. Everything is easier, from heavy physical tasks to managing our emotions. The world even looks brighter. We know that better sleep leads to a better experience of life.
It’s the same with listening: better listening leads to a better experience of life.
We talk a lot here at Warwick School about Growth Mindset – the belief that we can all grow and improve at whatever we want to. A fixed mindset is the belief that talent is a given from birth – we’re born with a certain level of ability and however hard we try, essentially, we’re stuck with it. A fixed mindset can make us very defensive – like a dragon guarding the bit of treasure that he’s got. A dragon is unlikely to listen, of course. I might approach him with a great idea for gold-mining in the neighbouring valley but he’d probably scorch me to death, in case I stole what he’d got. If he’d listened, he might have increased his horde.
Listening, then, is a key feature of Growth Mindset – listening to anyone, without judging them or their words first, be they grumpy teenagers, awkward in-laws or difficult colleagues. Be they our juniors or our seniors, we simply don’t know where tips for finding treasure will come from.
In terms of Wellbeing, being able to listen to someone is often cited as a great gift that we can offer to others. Time and again, it’s shown that the most helpful aspect of counselling is the rapport between the client and the counsellor – and that rapport is dependent on listening.
We focus less often on how valuable listening is to our own Wellbeing – as partners, parents, managers, colleagues, friends and so on. If we cannot listen, we are stuck at a distance from others, never really knowing how they feel, what they think, what great ideas they have, how they tick, what their points of view are – the list is endless.
I have recently read Johan Hari’s excellent book ‘Lost Connections’ (recommended both by a parent and a very experienced psychiatrist and Jungian analyst). In it, he discusses the nine ‘lost connections’ that he believes are contributors to depression and anxiety. One of them is our ‘lost connection’ with other people. If we cannot listen, we cannot connect and that is damaging not only to others, but to ourselves.
Listening takes time. It also takes humility. It is hard as parents, managers, teachers, coaches and so on, to be humble enough to make the time and have the attitude to listen. As leaders, we may feel that it is part of our role to be seen to have knowledge, answers and a plan. It is when we are willing to show our vulnerability and our willingness to listen, however, that we really connect.
The benefit will not just be to others, but to ourselves. Win, win.
PS. I am always grateful for suggestions for the next book I might read on Wellbeing. Do send them to firstname.lastname@example.org