Monday, 11 August 2014

The Power of Listening

Wouldn't it be great to be a really good listener?
Someone  once described Sigmund Freud, the 'Father of psychoanalysis', as such, "He struck me so forcibly that I shall never forget him. His eyes were mild and genial. His voice was low and kind. His gestures were few. But the attention he gave me, his appreciation of what I said, even when I said it badly, was extraordinary. You've no idea what it meant to be listened to like that." Wow! What an incredible listener and power of listening.

Most of us think we are good listeners but are we? We probably often go into situations with minds full of ideas, hearts full of emotions and actions full of agendas and what we want from the meeting. Doesn't this block real deep listening? Is it is possible to deeply listen if we are full of all this stuff? Perhaps it's when we put to one side all our drives and wants and really become present to the other or others that the real gold standard listening really walks on stage. What is certain is that people usually pick up when they are not listened to. The refrain of 'He's not listening' is usually connected to ' He doesn't care'. This is a real issue as listening really is connected to caring for someone.

We recently heard a moving story about listening that we would like to share. Someone known to both of us had to go to a meeting where a team was going through a tough time. This person started to feel the trepidation and anxiety most of us would feel. What to say ? What to do? The friend concerned spoke to a wise colleague. The idea that came through was that the person should go to the meeting but not to offer solutions and 'magic answers' but rather themselves in presence and listening. They would go and listen and be there with people even if it was difficult. This just 'being there' and 'just listening' was what our friend did. Our friend describes the effect of this approach. 'I have to say that this was one of the most invigorating and humbling days of my career. All I did was listen and be with those individuals. They achieved what they wanted to achieve, but more importantly for me, they had the space to be themselves.'

There are three fundamental lessons here for us all. The first is that when our friend had a problem she spoke freely about her feelings to someone she trusted. That person listened and supported the emergence of possible approaches. Here we see the therapeutic process in a nutshell. Honesty, feelings, trust , listening and answers emerging from the encounter. Here we have a framework to create solutions and possibilities. We would guess that this is bit like a wizards spell in a fairy story book. If one of the ingredients is missing, it doesn't work or doesn't work fully. However, when all the components are there that's when the magic of options opening up starts. The second thing that we see is our friend decided to be part of the process rather than a 'fixer' or 'outsider'. She decided to go to the meeting to be present, to be alongside, to listen. A psychiatric social worker known to one of the writers used to do what he called 'the practice of presence'. He would visit patients on wards who had serious mental health problems and just be with them. He didn't seek to offer forms or solutions but himself as positive and listening presence. We are sure his presence was a healing and helpful one. This sort of listening and being present can only come from the depths of who we are. It really does mean putting aside our robe of importance and talking and 'just being there...just listening'. The third life lesson is what the result of this approach was. Our friend had an experience which was invigorating and humbling. The team did what they needed to do and were able to be themselves. This isn't a guaranteed result every time but there is something about humility, listening and openness to others that can help clear a way through difficult times.

Can we develop fantastic listening skills? Can we really move away from being people who are desperately waiting for the pause in another words to jump in with our words and statements? The good news is that we can. There are probably many things that can help this. We will pinpoint two. We will call them the direct and indirect approaches. The direct approach is to try to do what our friend actually did. To sit and listen and be open to the other person. To try to avoid the distractions - the looking at our watches, checking our phones and thinking about something else. If we try this again and again we will probably find out how difficult it is to really listen and be present. This practice will however start to sow the seeds that makes us great listeners. From these small acorns great trees can grow.

The indirect approach is that if we focus on developing ourselves in an authentic way we will become skilled listeners because to develop ourselves we have to listen to ourselves. Those on this journey will find their listening faculty developing as they progress. Not because they work on it but because they work on themselves. It reminds us a bit of students coming to York Street. They were totally focused on ticking certain competency boxes. We would tell them not to worry about this. They would tell us they had to get these competences passed. We would say 'Do the work and the boxes will get ticked. Focus on the work and you'll display the competences' and they always did. If we work on ourselves we will have to do a lot of humble listening and just being there with ourselves and others.

Is it worth walking this path of developing ourselves? Yes it is. Abraham Maslow, the eminent psychologist, did his studies not so much with the mentally unwell but rather those who had good mental health and stability. He spoke about the greatest of these people as those who were 'self actualized'. He went on to describe this state of self actualization - ' What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization...It refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.'  This promise and possibility is what will make us not just the best listeners possible but the best people possible too. And surely that's worth it.   

Lisa Falkingham, LCH Service Improvement Team

John Walsh, York Street Health Practice  


  1. Great words of wisdom which I obviously need. Even when I was reading it I got distracted and instead of listening to the written words I started thinking of a response! I would like to think I am a good listener but in reality I am often doing something else. The idea of just being with someone sounds very comforting, even spiritual and maybe that is why God is such a good listener! It reminds me of a favorite saying of my lovely Irish mum, " you have two ears and one mouth so you should listen twice as much as you speak!
    Thanks Lisa and John, inspirational as ever. Best Wishes, Rose McCarthy

  2. A timely reminder, thank you. The spirituality of presence you speak of is palpable; creating open space for presence is an art and one I'm seeking to develop.

    I really love this line in your post

    'there is something about humility, listening and openness to others that can help clear a way through difficult times'

    Being able to embody such a presence would make the good times even better.