Living in this fast paced, attention deprived, constantly distracted world, we are losing the desire, willingness and ability to see another or be seen by them.
This is true whether we are at work, at play or with our loved ones.
Having so much ‘going on and doing’, in our lives works against us in so may ways, our relationships are compromised, our decisions are made thoughtlessly and our own thinking is not heard by us or by others.
We can all hear (unless audibly impaired), but most of us rarely listen.
As I have said previously, hearing is passive, we hear without thinking, whereas listening is active, we have to intend to listen. “I hear from, I listen to.”
Yet, I am seeing many instances where face-to-face conversations are being replaced by email or messaging. I am a lover of technology and recognise how it has transformed connecting with each other when we are miles apart. I was at a wedding recently, where the Bridegroom’s sister was able to watch the ceremony using technology from five thousand miles away. She was able to feel part of it and the Bridegroom felt good feeling her presence.
In the same breath, I have seen instances of individuals sending each other messages about a meeting, whilst actually in the meeting!
“The same technology that brings us closer to those far away, takes us far away from the people that are actually close to us.”
If we show up for a conversation, only hearing, and need to have ‘technology’ on the table in front of us, the relationship will suffer. Research shows that the depth and quality of conversation will be lower.
So how do we show up to be seen and to see each other?
In considering this ‘how’, I am reminded of a practice at the Brahma Kumaris, where for one minute, on the hour, every hour, a piece of music is played into all rooms in their buildings around the World. During this time, everyone stops what they are doing, quietens themselves by focusing on an object, and notices their breathing, deeply and slowly. When the music stops they carry on.
They also use this practice at the start of a meeting and at the end of it. This enables them to begin it by being present and to at the end to digest what has taken place in the meeting, and to prepare for the next one. Also, anyone can call for a minute’s silence during a meeting, for example, to relieve tensions, for everyone to have time to think, and so on.
My experience is that in many instances we plan what we are going to say or talk about, but ignore how we are going to show up, be present, listen or understand.
Personally, it begins with my intention to still myself. Then an intention to be curious, interested in the other and be willing to listen to understand. I know that I will need to surrender myself such that I can witness the other.
I prefer to arrive for a meeting a few minutes early, to sit quietly, to focus on my breathing, to stretch and then relax through my body, and to let go of my ‘stuff’.
Secondly, I need to get still and quiet enough to notice what is going on in my head and my body. To tune in and listen to myself. How am I feeling physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually? Doing this enables me to notice all the chatter, the feelings, the blockages, that will stop me being fully present with the other and will stop me from actively participating in the conversation.
Acknowledging that my thoughts will continue to arise, my intention is that for this hour or two, the person in front of me is the most important person in my life, metaphorically of course, for this time, and to give them my full attention. To be non-judging, to see them as an equal, one who does not need fixing, but needing, as we all are, to be seen, heard and understood.
Whatever I notice arising inside gives me the opportunity to take care of it, share it with the speaker, (so they are aware of it), or mentally write it down to be dealt with afterwards. For example, if I am expecting an important call from a loved one, we can agree that it is OK for me to take that call.
I recall a lunchtime meeting, where my guest asked if it would be OK to have his mobile on the table, as he was unsure if his colleague would be joining us or not. As it happened, she did not call, but arrived a few minutes later. She arrived and explained that her client was at a conference that day and he was calling her randomly in break times and asked me if it would be OK for her to take the call or messages. What was noticeable was that as I was about to share with her the earlier conversation, I turned to my colleague and noticed he had now put his mobile away. I acknowledged their professionalism and respect that had been shown by both of them.
I had a personal experience where I was due to co-facilitate a workshop session at a conference. I arrived at the conference to meet my fellow facilitator, moments before having received a text message which had unsettled me. Knowing that I was unsettled and unable to be fully present, I explained the situation to my colleague. He listened deeply, asked a few questions and when I had finished asked if I wanted to hear his thoughts on what I had shared. I listened to his observations and advice, took it on board and made a couple of telephone calls. Relieved, I then knew that I would be able to be fully present for the workshop, something I know I would not have been able to do had I not shared it upfront.
In an ideal world, both people in a conversation would have prepared well for their time together. Both people will have stilled themselves enough to see the other and to be seen, and quietened themselves to hear the other and to be heard.
All too often though, neither is prepared. The result of which is streams of words being rattled off, little listening taking place, interrupting the other when they draw breath, allowing random thoughts to take them away from the conversation, misunderstandings galore, yet smiling as though the words have been heard and understood, when all the time being more concerned about what happened earlier that day or wondering about the next meeting.
Some argue that having fully engaged conversations, or rather dialogue takes too long and we don’t have enough time. Yet, at the same time, believing that it is OK to have follow up meetings to go through again what was said in the first meeting, not heard or understood, or decisions agreed to and not noted, or worst of all having to delay a project because of mistakes resulting from not listening.
I believe that the majority of rework in organisations is a result of poor listening.
On other occasions, one of the participants is prepared, quiet and still enough to see and be seen. What I have experienced is that this state can bring out the same state in the other, although it can take a little time to manifest. It typically starts with the equivalent of a download of everything from the speaker about what is going on for them. Remaining silent, not interrupting, and being fully present, eye contact, open body language, and a welcoming face, draws it all out from the speaker.
Even in the silence, where they draw breath, we remain still and quiet. It may not happen the first, second or even third pause, but it will. They will stop, they get still, they go quiet and they return the eye contact you have been sharing with them. Resist the temptation to say anything. In the stillness and silence, what will now emerge is likened to them being spoken. It is likely that what they say next will surprise them too. It may be prefaced by them saying, “I have never shared this with anyone before”, or they may say afterwards, “I had no idea I was going to say that”.
What will have happened is that your relationship from this moment onwards will have changed. The relationship will have deepened, become more trusting, become more authentic.
We have reached a point in our development, sadly, where we have little or no time for people. It is not that we don’t like them; rather we believe we don’t have the time, which in the long term will be damaging for society as a whole. We want sound bites that are quickly digestible. We want to be able to respond in our time, on our own terms. We want to curate our respond such that we are seen in the best possible light. So we armour up and project the image we want you to have of us. The last thing we want is to be seen, as we really are, scared, vulnerable, or real.
Never underestimate what difference you can make in a conversation, in a meeting in a relationship, when you listen. As one participant at a listening workshop said, “Listening is life changing”. He went on to say that he had already called his partner and apologised for not listening and promised he would listen more deeply to them and their young child.
A short exercise to try today when you get home
Agree that for the next five minutes, and time it, you will listen fully, deeply and silently to them talking about whatever they want. When they have spoken it will be your turn to do the same. Whilst they speak to keep your eyes on their eyes, even when they, ‘go away to think’, and even when they stop talking and go quiet, remain silent. Do not be surprised by what they may say. At the end of their time, reverse it for five minutes. At the end of that, look them in the eyes and offer one word of appreciation to each other, “name, one thing I appreciate about you is….” Don’t overthink what to say, just go with what arises.
Who will you really listen to today?