“What we try to do in the face of very difficult conversations is we try to make things better…What makes something better is connection.” Brené Brown (professor and writer on courage and authenticity).
It’s mid-March 2020 and we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. We’re all hunkering down, fearful of the future. Worried about our own health, the wellbeing of our loved ones, of neighbours and people we don’t even know and will never meet.
Daily life as we know it is grinding to a halt. Things we take for granted are changing. We can no longer go out to eat, see our friends, take the bus, the car or the train to work. All this is shifting right in front of our eyes. How will we cope, what will the world look like after this is over?
So many people around the globe are being asked to isolate or distance themselves socially, so how can we remain connected? At heart we are herd animals and being isolated can create loneliness and great mental distress. So what can we do? What can you do? Right now?
Not to me. I mean to others. To your loved ones, to your neighbours and to people who need an ear. Listen properly — actively pay attention so you can make them feel special.
Stephen Covey (author of The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People) said: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
Psychologists talk about levels of listening and most of us only listen superficially. We often pretend to listen, all the while doing something else. We do this a lot when we’re on the phone. Watch out for those micro pauses when you’d expect the other person to say “hmm”. Instead there is silence followed by something that doesn’t quite fit what you’ve just said.
Sometimes we only listen for what we agree with or like, or as Covey notes, we listen to the first few words and then rehearse what we’re going to say. We stop listening to what the other person has said and start formulating a response.
It takes effort to really listen because our minds stray all the time. Anyone who practices meditation or mindfulness knows this. The brain is tireless when it comes to meandering off.
Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert are psychologists who ran a study of 2,250 adults and found 47% of every waking hour is made up of “mind wandering.” And that it’s so common we don’t notice it. Apparently they say the only time this didn’t happen was when their subjects were having sex!
We are the only species that spends a lot of time thinking about what is not going on — contemplating the past, guessing the future, or thinking about things that will never happen at all. Killingsworth and Gilbert said: “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
So how can we, how can you, help people to feel a bit happier, a bit less anxious in these troubling times?
Try this when you’re about to have a conversation with someone. Put everything down and turn off the TV. Look the person in the eye, or if you’re on the phone, close your eyes. Really focus. What are they saying? Listen to the words and the meaning underneath. What emotions are they expressing? How do they look? Watch their body language. Let them finish. Leave a pause. Then repeat back some of what they said, summarise a little. It takes real focus and attention to do this, but you’ll notice quite quickly what happens.
I spent several weeks training to be an organisational mediator and I was overwhelmed at the difference active listening makes. It’s tiring to do it but it revolutionises how the other person feels. People said that hearing their words spoken back to them made them really stop and reflect. They felt like it was the first time they had really been heard.
I find that in many of the Spoon by Spoon interviews people welcome 30 minutes of talking, half an hour of being understood.
“It’s been really helpful to try and convey exactly what’s going on in my head. A lot came out — things that I’d been thinking about that I haven’t actually verbalised before.”
“It felt like a conversation, which I really appreciated. We walked around the topics and looked at them from a number of different directions and that was helpful. I really appreciated it — it felt easy.”
“Almost like a mini coaching session, allowing me to process some of the stuff that has happened.”
“Very helpful and interesting and enabled me to reflect and probably reduce my anxieties about my situation.”
Tich Nhat Hanh is a 93-year-old Vietnamese monk. Despite his age and profession, he has 1.8 million followers on Facebook. I’m inclined to pay attention. He said: “Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart.”
These are difficult times for so many of us but we can make a difference. In a small way, each day. It doesn’t cost anything. We don’t need any new technology. We have it already — our ears. We need to offer up listening to help others. This doesn’t mean problem solving or sorting out their issues. It means really just listening.
Can I suggest that you do something now? Please phone your mother, your father, your next-door neighbour, your friend. Stop doing the washing up and really listen to your children. There’s little we can do to prevent this virus spreading, but we can stop and listen properly to each other.
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.
Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan