This month, I am completing my series of pieces on aspects of the four dialogue practices outlined by Garrett, Isaacs and others: authentic voicing, respecting, suspending judgement and listening. Listening, along with suspending judgement, especially supports skilful inquiry, an intention to draw out and include what is not yet known.
As I began, I realised that I’ve already written about listening twice this year: Giving talk a rest!?, posted here, and Talking well, a guest post for FuchsiaBlue. ‘Giving talk a rest!?’ explores the potential therapeutic impact of listening well – being heard can bring a sense of ease and nourishment to a speaker. ‘Talking well’ considers the whereabouts and intensity of attention.
I want to take these themes further, in support of the idea of listening as receiving. One effect of being received is that we feel acknowledged, and more able to loosen our grip on our opinion, creating space for alternatives. When I feel heard, it is as if the responsibility for my position is shared, and I am free to share in the views of others. Participating in an exchange, I gain a sense of inclusion, of belonging, and I become more open to whatever makes sense for the collective, even when that differs significantly from my individual interests.
In contrast, when I’m not heard, I say again what is important to me. In not being received, I feel unacknowledged, and I may repeat myself several times, with increasingly less skill, until I am heard, or until I disengage, feeling much less inclined to listen to others.
What happens for you? Think of a time when you were heard, and a time where you were not – what was the impact on you?
Dialogue practice invites reciprocity in listening, in receiving and being received. We give our attention to others openly, inclusively, whether we agree with them or not. We build our capacity for accepting the human experience of others. We are mindful of the whereabouts and intensity of our listening.
In noticing the ‘whereabouts’ of our attention, we become aware of whether we stay with what another person is saying, or get caught up in what we might say in response. We are also conscious of what we are paying attention to, and with what intent. Perhaps we are listening to a story, an explanation, a proposal, an hypothesis, to assess if we agree or not. Perhaps we are listening for information, facts, or ideas, to support or refute a view. These examples relate to the content of what is being said. When we receive another person’s perspective, we listen beyond their narrative. We acknowledge another human being, and the emotional and energetic tone of what they are saying.
To become aware of the ‘intensity’ of our attention, we might consider the impact of listening too keenly or too loosely. Voices can be fragile, particularly when speaking a deeper personal truth. To calibrate intensity of listening, imagine that voices are made of glass: if we grip glass too hard, it may shatter; if we grip it too lightly, it may fall and smash. We hold glass carefully, polishing it to clear its surface of smears and smudges, so we can look through and see the world beyond. We extend this kind of care to the voices of others and to our internal voice – if our attention is too focused on either, a voice may break. If our attention is too diffuse, a voice may falter. In receiving, we hold all voices with a delicate touch, so we don’t crush or drop them.
Listening as receiving has a sense of stillness and serenity of spirit which contrasts with the popular notion of ‘active listening’. Receiving requires mindfulness, even when those present are in agreement, or a conversation is benign, or not personally significant. When there is more emotional charge, such as when we convey or witness unwelcome news, demands on our awareness and equanimity are higher.
For example, how do you approach a conversation in which you are delivering unpalatable news, such as telling a team member that they’ve been unsuccessful in an interview for promotion? You anticipate that the recipient will become distraught or confrontational – do you prepare to receive and acknowledge their disappointment or anger? Or do you seek to mitigate the effects of the message, perhaps by softening it, or delivering it quickly?
My experience in coaching assignments suggests that many leaders try to lessen the impact of the bad news, ostensibly out of care for the recipient. However, when I probe more deeply, they can be inadvertently seeking to protect themselves from ‘fall-out’ they’re afraid they can’t handle. They don’t trust themselves or the recipient with the natural pain that arises from unmet expectations. In being unable to fully receive these emotions, they work around it, and miss an opportunity for shared human experience. As a recipient, how would you want to be treated?
When I’m rocked by unpleasant news, I want the messenger to be still, listening. Oriah Mountain Dreamer describes it well in her poem ‘The Invitation’:
‘I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.’
How can we cultivate capacity to receive others and accompany them in adversity?