Rebecca reflects on the true meaning of listening and how being still may be the best answer.
Early in my career, I learned about body language during a management development course. I was taught about mirroring the other person’s actions and nodding along whilst they were talking. However, I didn’t truly understand listening until my coaching qualification, when I learned about ‘listening on the outside’. This is the ability to still all the noise on the inside and listen to the other person. By putting myself in their shoes, I not only listen to the words that they’re saying, but to the meaning behind them (or even to what they aren’t overtly saying).
The silence within a conversation, or a question someone asks also gives us a great insight into what they’re thinking. We often think we must answer the question, but it’s even better to stop, think and give ourselves time to truly listen to what’s just been communicated.
To really listen to someone is an immensely powerful skill, which I believe is one of the greatest gifts we can offer. Jan Karon, an American novelist, said, ‘Listening is among the most generous ways to give. When a loved one talks to us, whether their words appear to be deep or shallow, listen. For in some way, they are baring their souls’. This quote really resonated with me and its meaning doesn’t just relate to your loved ones, but your friends, colleagues, or even people you bump into at the shop.
There are five different levels of listening that we all carry out on a day-to-day basis, but the key aim is to intuitively listen to people:
1. Formality listening is when you’re not really listening at all. Your mind may be somewhere else completely; watching TV, reading a book, or replying to an email. You’re likely not involved in the conversation at all.
2. Pretend listening is when you appear to be listening. You may be nodding along or saying ‘mhm’, but you’re never fully tuned into the conversation. This often happens when people learn about listening and are doing what they think they should, to be ‘seen’ to be listening, but they’re actually preoccupied.
3. Selective listening is when you only really listen to parts of the conversation. This can cause miscommunication or misunderstanding, as you’ll hear different parts of the conversation and forget the unwanted parts of what’s been said.
4. Reactive listening is when you listen to respond, as opposed to truly listening to what the other person is saying. People often listen for a chance to jump in, as they have a great idea or comment they want to make, which in turn means they miss a lot of the conversation.
5. Intuitive (or empathic) listening is when you truly listen to everything someone is saying. You listen not only to the words but to understand more about the other person.
The idea of really listening to someone is just as important at home in your personal life, as it is at work. A big one for me is when I’m chatting with my partner and they say, “Did you hear what I said?” or, “Are you actually paying attention?” When I think back, was I really giving my full attention to the conversation? Or when my daughter is trying to tell me a story, and I’m emptying the dishwasher or putting the shopping away, I’m not really plugged into what she’s saying. We can’t intuitively listen whilst doing 101 other tasks at the same time.
Sometimes, when my brain is muddled and I feel like I don’t know where to start, I give myself a gift by being still and listening to myself. There’s loads on this in the excellent book Untamed by Glennon Doyle. Learning to truly listen doesn’t just help you to be a good colleague, partner, or friend externally, but it supports you to focus on your internal state.
Are you really listening?