It was the famous Sufi poet, Rumi, who wrote: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there”.
A beautiful statement, which is often easier said than done.
Humans are quick to judge, and once we’ve made up our mind about someone (or something) it can be even harder to change.
Amy Cuddy in her book Presence: bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges recounts how when we first meet someone, we are trying to answer two questions:
- ‘What are this person’s intentions toward me?’
- ‘How strong and competent is this person?’
In doing this, she says, we are judging firstly, how warm and trustworthy the person is, and secondly, whether or not we think they’re capable of enacting their intentions. We make these assessments often relying on a raft of non-substantive factors. For example, how the person smiles, whether they make eye contact and what they wear.
Sadly, often that assessment can be off the mark, which is why listening – really listening – is essential.
Kate Murphy, author of You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters highlights how it is through listening we learn about ourselves (and others) and connect, engage and empathise with others too.
Despite its criticality, listening is a skill that many of us lack. To counteract this, Kate suggests adopting a listener’s demeanour. This is where your movement and expression actively displays interest in what the other person is saying. Your eyes don’t dart, wander around the room or look at objects such as your mobile phone. You don’t fidget. Instead, your body is relaxed, open and accepting.
In this way you are fully focused on what is being said. You are listening to the words, but also noticing the body language and subtle cues that are transmitted non-verbally. You are actively seeking to hear what they say, without rushing to interpretation and judgement.
Seeking to hear what is being said doesn’t mean you need to agree with what is being said. Instead, you are genuinely interested and curious as to what the person is saying. You ask questions and seek to clarify before sharing your ideas or providing a solution. You listen empathetically and with compassion because you are seeking to understand what they need without judgement. This is you striving to best understand how they feel, so you can acknowledge those feelings and then recognise what they need from you.
Creating the space and time for this approach requires deliberate effort. To help, here are some tips to get you primed and positioned for a healthy conversation:
- Schedule important conversations at the time of day when you know you will be most alert
- Find a quiet place to have the conversation and turn off all distractions so you are fully present and not distracted or interrupted
- Watch how you are reacting to the conversation. In particular, notice any physical cues and emotional reactions
- Slow your mind down so you can take in what is being said and process what you are hearing and seeing
- Notice where you are judging and the assumptions you are bringing to what you hear and see
- Ask clarifying questions so you can check and confirm your interpretation
- Ask questions with curiosity and genuine interest
- Acknowledge that you’ve heard what they are saying, and that this issue matters to them
- Accept that your role is often not to ‘solve’ the issue for them, but to create space so they can ‘solve’ the issue themselves
As the American Minister and positive thinking champion, Norman Vincent Peale said: “Change your thoughts and you change your world”.
It’s impossible to do that when you fail to listen.