Here is the first ever Guest Blog for fuchsia blue. Amanda Ridings has been mentor, teacher and friend to me since we met at a dinner in Edinburgh and I subsequently attended Pause for Breath in the glorious Scottish Borders 4 years ago. (details of this years P4B are on the link below. If you are thinking about any sort of personal development or gaining some thinking time this year, it is worth enquiring into)
Amanda is author of the award winning book Pause for Breath: bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations (She saysPractice 10 and Practice 33 are particularly relevant to this post.)
.…begins with listening well, at least in my experience!
By listening well, I mean becoming aware of how I listen, and how I don’t listen, and seeking to really listen, in a way that is profound and respects another person’s perspective and potential.
When I was taking my early steps in my own deeper development, I read a passage, in a somewhat unexpected book, that evoked in me a visceral sense of how I wanted to be received, and understood:‘He listened in the way that we dream of others listening, his face seeming to reflect on everything said. He did not start forward to seize on my slightest pause, to assert an understanding of something before the thought was finished, or to argue with a swift, irresistible impulse – the things which often make dialogue impossible.’ Anne Rice, Interview with a Vampire.
Looking back, I wonder whether it was this passage that inspired me to begin exploring dialogue. In a world where it can seem hard to find people who have the time to listen at all, what would it be like if more of us made a commitment to try and listen well?
For me, listening well involves listening externally to what someone is saying, and also listening internally to the response being evoked in me – what am I thinking, what am I experiencing, what am I sensing? Skilfulness lies in bringing ‘just right’ attention to both others and self, alighting on each with what one of my clients calls a ‘butterfly touch’, and moving between them in the right kind of balance.
For example, I might be listening to a request for support from an associate, and wanting to meet that request yet feeling uncomfortable for some reason. Internally I have both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’. To listen well, it helps me if I ‘note’ these internal responses, and return my attention to listening to my associate. If I am not able to find this balance, I may get caught up in an internal story of being ‘caught’ between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, becoming anxious about what I will say when they eventually stop speaking. My premise, drawing on Leadership Embodiment principles, is that the other person will sense my involvement in my own concerns, and ‘know’ that they are no longer being heard. Any connection will be diluted in that moment.
If I can find a skilful balance, I’ll enter the conversation only when they have finished speaking. At this point I have choices. I might:
- Ask for more information and/or seek more understanding – why are they requesting support? How did they come to think of me? What options have they considered? This might help me weigh the balance between my ‘yes’ and my ‘no’.
- Offer my current experience – I would like to support you, and yet I feel uncomfortable because…This allows the other person to understand the impact of their request on me, which they can then factor into their perspective.
There are other options, of course. Many will be variations on a theme of bringing more information into the field of the conversation in a way that allows for further exploration.
As well as attending to the whereabouts of our attention, listening well also involves calibrating the intensity of it: too much can feel smothering, or like pressure, and too little can seem like disinterest or lack of care. There is a ‘goldilocks zone’ for attention, where we accept what is said, and hold it lightly, and with respect, even though we may disagree or feel unsettled. In doing this, another person will ‘know’ that we hear and acknowledge them, just as they sense if we get caught up in our own concerns.
The intensity and whereabouts of our attention are just two factors that influence the quality of our listening. In our humanness, there are many ways we distract ourselves from listening well, or misinterpret what we hear, or overlay our own map of the world inappropriately on someone else’s perspective. To listen really well, we need to develop awareness of our particular human foibles and how they colour what we hear. However, to begin to listen well may take only intent and a little mindfulness.
The potential rewards of making a commitment to begin to listen well are great. Listening well means that you hear not only what someone says, but also the way they say it, and what they might be leaving unsaid, possibly to protect themselves, or you. Listening well to another offers the opportunity to make an appropriate and skilful response. To make the most of this, it helps to pause, and to listen well to ourselves: what are we thinking and feeling, truly? This moment of presence to our own experience creates the opening to speak with authenticity, even if we are concerned about how we might be received. If we embrace this opening, we will indeed ‘talk well’.
Amanda Ridings, Originate,
If you would like to explore the ideas in this post, please consider joining the Pause for Breath leadership retreat (13 to 17 May, Scottish Borders).
For free, see my blog!