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To listen or not to listen; is that the question?

Updated: May 5, 2023

I learnt to #listen to what was not being said as a child. I was attuned very keenly to the behaviours in my family and my classmates. I was often puzzled and worried about what was happening between individuals in groups. I didn’t know how to speak up about this as a child, and so a lot of it was squashed and some of it came out as outbursts of frustration and anger.

When I was in my early 30s, I decided to become a Samaritans volunteer and did this for around five years. For those outside of the UK, #Samaritans is a national charity to support people with difficult emotions particularly, but not exclusively, suicidal thoughts and feelings. The charity describes the role of its #volunteers as “being there for people who need someone to listen.” At Samaritans I really learnt to listen, to just listen. Not to respond, but to understand. To use every cell of my body and my mind to tune into the person on the other end of the phone, or the email, or the text line, or in the chair opposite me. I learnt to listen carefully to people who were nothing like me and also to those who were walking in shoes very similar to mine.

At either ends of that spectrum and all the points in between, it is incredibly important not to project your own story and emotions onto others (this is feeling what that situation would be like for you rather than them). #Empathy is often described as feeling what it might be like in someone else’s shoes. This analogy is helpful, but it doesn’t quite work for me as it still presumes that it’s your own feet going into another pair of shoes! For me, empathy is about being outside of your own mind and body. It is much closer in definition to compassion – having concern for others that comes from a deep place, noticing that position from a range of perspectives and with equanimity.

two women having a chat through an open window.

A couple of years into being a Samaritan, I started to learn to be a leadership/executive #coach. I did a lot of study and a lot of practice. And over time, I wasn’t a very good Samaritan anymore. My #coaching skills and desire to help people move forward into #action wasn’t what was needed to be a good listener at Samaritans. My Samaritans training had helped me become a good coach very quickly, but my coaching skills didn’t make me a better Samaritan.

What my coaching training, supervision and practice does give me is an ability to be reflexive in the moment – to observe what is happening to me as I listen to someone else. Being in this ‘helicopter’ zone is incredibly important to listen well. It helps us notice whether we want to ‘reply’ or ‘understand’. It helps us notice what is happening somatically when listening to someone else. It helps us access a whole other level of communication to process what is happening in the underbelly of the conversation. It is exciting, rewarding and a powerful place to be in.

Therefore, listening with intention is important – what is the purpose of me listening now? What does the other person need from me? How am I listening? And how long do I listen for? When do I stop listening and #speakup - for myself, as an ally?

If you are interested in reading more on listening, I highly recommend Nancy Kline’s Time to Think and also Prof David Clutterbuck’s short blog on five levels of listening.

Until next time, take good care.

Love Liz xx

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