Listening – in one ear and out the other…


We all listen right?  We listen to Ted talks, we listen to the radio, we listen to our kids, our families and our friends. We listen to the people we work for, the people who work for us. But my question to you is, do we listen in the same way to all of these? Do our ears get bigger depending on how important the topic is for us? Do we HEAR what people are saying when they’re talking, or do we just pick out the bits that suit us?

It’s a complicated set of questions. Because I bet we would all say that most of the time we are really good listeners. That we have empathy and can really respond in a way that shows we’ve been tuned in. but do we? There has been loads of research done that says we pick out the bits we want to hear, the bits that are relevant to us. So when someone tells us something that is happening to them in their lives, we find the bit that is relevant to us. It makes sense right, it means we can relate to it, can understand what they’re saying in the context of ourselves. It is in fact what makes a big contribution to a conversation.

So why talk about listening?

Well, I think that there are many opportunities lost when we don’t really listen to people. I think that wars could be stopped, that religions can live together, that governments and people could realise they want the same things, but from different perspectives. I think that if we were able to listen, really listen, hear and not let our prejudices get in the way, that we might find ourselves living in calmer times, less bloody times, less prejudiced times.

When I look back over the last two decades I can mark very clearly times when listening has been key.

There are trite times, when I was a young and excitable music journalist having to really listen to what artists were saying about in the interviews to try and portray accurately whatever mystical message they were trying to get across. It’s really good training on how to listen when you have to report back what has been said, when you not only have to hear the words, but understand the essence of what people are trying to get across.

But what I find really interesting is the dynamics of power at play when listening to people.

So the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago speaking at an event I had organised, refusing to listen to anyone – operating only on her own schedule and the logistical nightmare and demoralised people that occurred as a result. Or at the other end of the scale, working with Desmond Tutu who has the time and energy to really listen to anybody, whoever they are. Watching the effect that has on people is really mind blowing.

And working with Terry Waite who had no-one to listen to him for five years but who somehow managed to hear and understand the reasons his kidnappers gave him for chaining him to a radiator in isolation for so long. Or working out in Uganda with a President not prepared to listen to the gay community (yes the same as Matt spoke about earlier) in fact who shuts down communications so completely that he puts people’s lives at risk.

It all boils down to how you listen.

Different stages of listening

  • Downloading: This is our auto-pilot response, where we react superficially. Often this happens with our partners, or someone we don’t value very much.
  • Objective Listening: Where we are able to let issues out on the table, but not able to resolve them. I’m thinking Middle East conflict.
  • Empathic Listening: Where you put yourself in the other person’s shoes and develop new perspectives. So it’s a true dialogue rather than a debate.
  • Generative Listening: This is the highest form of listening. You drop your existing knowledge and beliefs – as well as your attachment to any specific outcomes – and allow a new future to emerge. All breakthrough inventions and discoveries are typically a result of generative listening .

So imagine what the world could look like if negotiations were always done on a generative basis. Imagine what the peace talks would look like. Imagine also how hostage situations would change. Imagine talking that way with your partner…

So I want to leave you with a 24 hour challenge. Listen. Really listen. For 24 hours listen generatively.Put all your prejudices aside; be open to the world and the people in it.

And just notice what happens.

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