Looking at a long life I sometimes try to recall incidents or discoveries which I took to heart, and have continued to benefit from since then. The first one which occurs to me is when I learnt how to listen. Back in the late ‘60s I became a marriage counsellor. Of course I was trained for this, and before long I was sitting in a presbytery, and meeting a range of people whose lives were going wrong. In theory they would all be married couples, in practice it could be people with gender change or deep-rooted homosexuality – or almost any other personality distress you could think of.
So I had to learn to listen. I had started under the impression that I was a good listener, and even better at providing workable solutions. But I was taught that this was not the listening required. It was no more than a form of narcissism which gave me a conceited sense of wisdom.
If you think about it, normal conversations are like a tennis match. We take in quickly what the person has to say and, already, we are preparing our answer. And so the ball of conversation flies backwards and forwards. Minimal listening, maximal responding. Counselling is the opposite. Here, the counsellor listens very carefully, taking in every nuance and watching any nonverbal signals. Then he (or she) reflects what he has understood, both in terms of information and emotion. The client, who is not used to anyone actually listening, gains the confidence to explore their difficulties at a deeper and deeper level. Later the counsellor will help the client think about what they have described, and how they might takes steps to improve the situation.
Of course formal counselling is a specific situation, but I found that really listening: to my wife, children, friends, colleagues was enormously valuable. I no long appeared as the ‘know all’ . Instead I was someone whom you could talk to and who wouldn’t judge you, and who might help you to solve a problem or two.
I would like to claim that I am constant in this approach. But no. The gravity of my ego pulls me down to becoming the ‘know all’ again. I regularly have to look at my conversations and check how well or badly I have been listening – and to make a new resolve.
So you might like to try an exercise. Look out for an occasion when someone, perhaps close to you, starts a conversation. And then see what happens if you use listening in the way I have described. You may find that difficult to do. I was obliged to practice again and again, and in different circumstances, before the message began to stick. A phrase I was taught to keep in the back of my mind was ‘you feel X because of Y’. As in ‘you feel low today because you had some bad news yesterday’. I found that helpful.
You may find the outcome surprising. The speaker may well have never had the experience of someone really listening to him. And, as in the counselling room, a great deal more will emerge. It may end up not with ‘I’ll give you the solution for that’ but with ‘what do you think the solution for that would be? This could lead to practical objectives which the speaker is helped to identify. The listener is not solving the problem but guiding the process which enables the speaker to solve the problem.