by Paula Schmidt
Last summer I read a book that profoundly deepened every conversation I’ve had since.
I’m an avid reader, but few titles come to mind as impactful on my life as The Lost Art of Listening by Michael P. Nichols. The techniques Nichols describes have improved my marriage, my friendships, relationships with clients and just about every interaction I have, additionally bringing joy and depth into what might otherwise have been only passing encounters.
Consider the last time someone truly listened to you. It’s remarkable how empowering it is, especially when the other person is someone you admire.
Thich Nhat Hanh describes this practice beautifully: “Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person… You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are… full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion… listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don't interrupt. You don't argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.” And yet – how rarely do we set aside our own concerns and simply hold space for others to speak?
Like most of us, I’d always assumed myself to be a good listener. But as I applied Mr. Nichols’s recommendations and experienced instant, profound changes, I must blushingly face the truth; I’ve been a terrible listener!
I realised just how often I interrupted, both eagerly and impatiently. Even when you do know what someone intends to say, interrupting is a disservice. It is, of course, rude – but perhaps more importantly, when we interrupt we may cut someone off from coming to a revelation they may not otherwise have had.
Many people, especially extroverts, do their best processing aloud. When we cut them off and summarise or redirect the conversation to whatever we’re more interested in hearing, we ‘pop their bubble’. By listening actively, without offering advice or interjecting our own experiences, we encourage others to self-soothe, to remember and become their best selves. We deepen our community, reassuring our team that they are cared for and that they are important to us.
Here are a few techniques Nichols suggests becoming a better listener:
Listen actively: listening is learning. It is not a passive act. Often you will be silent, but never passive. As Nichols describes, you are not a “passive receptor but an active, open one, attuned and inquiring”.
Don’t interrupt: it’s easier to replace a bad habit with a new behaviour than it is to just quit cold turkey. If, like me, you’re trying to stop interrupting or to become less emotionally reactive, this is what you do instead: listen harder.
Don’t give advice – just listen: to someone who is struggling and specifically does request advice, you might try, ‘How do you wish you felt right now instead?’ Then empower this aspect. ‘I know you are X, and I believe in you. You’re going to figure this out. And I’m always here to listen.’
Don’t relate by making it ‘all about you’: let go of your ego. There is a time and a place to respond with a story of your own… but not as often as you think. “Good listeners don’t act needy. They don’t charm, flatter, provoke or interrupt... They suspend the self and listen,” says Nichols.
You don’t need to agree, disagree, respond with complaints of your own, or push to elicit feelings: when we truly listen, we relinquish control. This is non-negotiable. Of course, “Listening to the people we work with isn’t the same as becoming friends with them,” says Nichols. Clear boundaries are vital for healthy communities. We can keep this clarified by checking in on how things are going in regard to a specific task or position in work.
Don’t tell someone who is upset to calm down: Nichols says: “Listen to what the other person is actually saying, rather than trying to control or ‘herd’ them.” Remember, “You aren’t responsible for what other people feel... what they really need is to be understood,” he adds. Often we react to a tone of voice rather than what is actually being said. When triggered in a negative way, we brace ourselves instead of tuning in. Therefore, especially when what you hear upsets you, master yourself. Try to stay calm. Keep listening. Empathise. Put yourself in their position. Consider how nervous they might be, how unsettled or angry. Remember you are seeing only one moment in a journey you know very little about.
The real battle is never truly with the other person. It is with our own reaction.
In situations that escalate to personal criticism and do need to be redirected, when the speaker finishes talking, consider inviting him or her to explain why a specific behaviour troubles them. This helps us refocus to find solutions, or at least to better understand the situation, so we can approach solving it at a later time, on calmer seas.
Lastly, I invite you to consider how well you listen to your own needs and intuitions. Unmended, a cracked vessel will divide. Take care of your own wellness first: practice healthy boundaries.
Active listening requires energy. We can only hold space for others for a fixed amount of time. When a speaker is inconsiderate, of course you should not expect yourself to hold space for them terribly long. Why punish yourself – life is short! Listen actively, with intention, for as long as you can, and then kindly disengage. And there’s your good deed for the day.
The Lost Art of Listening is (naturally) available on audible, as well as in print and e-format. I highly recommend it. I’m grateful for the impact Nichols’s ideas have made in my own life and am so glad for the opportunity to share it with you. Thank you for reading, and happy listening!
Paula Schmidt is Business Development at EquipMySchool, a purchasing and consolidation agent for British and American schools worldwide www.equipmyschool.com. You can contact her directly at Paula@EquipMySchool.Com.
Nichols, Michael P. The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships. New York: Guilford Press, 2009. Print.