Deep listening

I once thought myself to be an excellent listener. Not only did I have a broad experience against which to judge what was being said, but I had a very accurate memory. When my wife complained “You haven’t been listening to a word I said” I would riposte by retailing her last three paragraphs verbatim. That would annoy her. Very satisfying – especially as I had in fact not focussed my mind for an instant on the message. I had heard but I had not listened.

This came to my mind the other day when I met up with an old friend who was telling me that his grown up daughter was going through a difficult period in her life, and he didn’t know how to help her. “After all,” he said, “I’m not a psychotherapist. In fact I’m more likely to do harm than good.”

I admired his humility. Too many of us leap in, with the best of intentions, to offer our homespun advice on problems great or small. So I said to him “Listen to what she says with great care. And keep feeding back what you have understood her to be feeling and why. There’s a good chance that she will be helped just by knowing that you understand, and, putting her problems into words, may well lead her towards her own answers – which are the only ones likely to work.”

What had changed my approach to listening?

I had trained to be a marriage counsellor, and the first lesson that I had learnt was that I was a very poor listener. That is, I heard what you said with one half of my mind, while the other half was judging, analysing criticising and preparing myself for a good answer. I was rather like a tennis player, positioning myself to make the next shot before my opponent had even hit the ball. I wasn’t truly listening to you at all.

Now, if you recognised any of that in your own listening – and I think you may – don’t be despondent. It’s the natural way that most people listen. They hear the other person but they listen through the filter of their own mind, not the speaker’s mind. And the speaker knows it. And, if you’re like me, good listening continues to be a hard habit to maintain: we are so much more interested in what we have to say than in the other person’s perspective.

Fortunately starting to learn how to listen well comes readily to hand. Perhaps two or three times during this day someone – a work colleague, a wife, a child – will want to say something to you which is important to them.

Immediately, focus on what they have to say. Your body language will follow the focus, so that they know they have your attention. Stifle, for the time being – perhaps for ever – your judgmental reaction to what they say – and listen. From time to time reflect what you have understood. You might be using phrases like “You find yourself very bored mid week when the flow of work drops?” Or “You’ve had the children all day, so when I’m late home you suspect I’m dodging the column.” Or “You really don’t enjoy maths because don’t like your teacher?” And so on.

I think you may find that your conversations become a great deal more constructive. And so will the people who address you; it may be the first time in their lives anyone has really listened to them.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Deep listening

  1. tim says:

    You feel that it is important to suspend judgement on what people say? That you can often best help them by carefully reflecting back to them what you understand them to be saying?

  2. Tim, are you just trying to clarify, or are you agreeing/disagreeing?

  3. tim says:

    Quentin, I’m sorry – I was trying to put into practice the advice as given, and I now think that was wrong of me. I agree fully with what you say (though this isn’t much of an endorsement) and hope my comment doesn’t deter other people from contributing more constructively.

  4. Tim – all the fun of the fair! Ça ne fait rien. But I wonder whether others have tried some deliberate deep listening and have any comments on its value – or otherwise.

  5. Horace says:

    I too have spent a fair amount of my time listening – in the ’50s as a junior doctor in the RAF to servicemen invalided home from the Canal Zone – more recently to elderly contemporaries – very often one is apparently dealing with an individual suffering from a delusion (or delusions).

    It is surely, as tim said, most “important to suspend judgement on what people say”.
    My own outstanding faux pas in the ’50s was when a rather insignificant young man (today we might say “a wimp”) told me very confidentially that “he was the personal pilate of a very senior [and well known] officer who was most anxious to have him back in service as soon as possible”.
    In the circumstances this seemed to me a tad unlikely, a delusion and possibly evidence of schizophrenia. Since schizophrenic behaviour tends to be somewhat unpredictable I arranged for him to be lodged in a ‘padded cell’ for the night. [In these days this may seem rather drastic but was not unusual at the time. It is simply a room with no hard surfaces or sharp corners on which the occupant might injure himself.]
    I was aroused early the following morning to receive a signal from the aforesaid ‘very senior officer’ as follows: “. . understand that you have my personal pilot in your hospital : see that he gets the best attention”.
    I had to go round post haste and explain that the reason for this rather unusual accommodation was that we had no other single rooms available at the time!

  6. John Candido says:

    As a someone who has read about and practised a form of listening called ‘active listening’, I can recomend a title by a late American Psychologist called Dr. Thomas Gordon. Dr. Gordon wrote a parenting book called ‘Parent Effectiveness Training’ or ‘PET’ for short. The book has gone through 30 editions; the most recent edition was published in 2000 by Three Rivers Press. It has a unique viewpoint on parental power which tries to recast the child parent relationship as one between equals. Of course I can hear people reading this as saying that this is complete rubish. I might add that of course parents have a natural authority due to their age and life experience and nothing in PET dicounts this.

    The natural imbalance of power within the parent-child relationship is recast, so to speak, on the basis of seing things from your child’s vantage point, however wrong you may initially see this to be the case. The equality of the relationship between the child and adult is expressed through an empathic listening skill called active listening as I mentioned earlier, the power of which has to be seen to be believed! The other two skills within the book are assertion skills and conflict resolution skills. PET has been so popular that it is offered in short courses for parents around the globe. It has even morphed into course for teachers, leaders and managers.

    I would recomend both the course and the book for any parent that is serious about not just being there but also wants to have a quality relationship with their children. The sets of attitudes and skills in ‘Parent Effectiveness Training’ are an excellent way of nurturing your childs self-esteem, personal self-discipline and future development to adulthood.

    The empathic and therapeutic power of an authority figure empathically listening to another child or individual is quite wonderous. It has the capacity to heal others and at times lead children and others to find solutions to their own problems. Finding your own solutions to your own problems can be a gateway to greater personal development in terms of maturity and independence for children and adults alike. I warmly recomend the book and course to everybody. God Bless.

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