Groupwork Institute Blog

Deep listening: Going beyond a technique…

Can you feel when someone is really listening to you?

If you’ve ever had the experience of being heard, you’ll know instantly the power of deep listening.

Being heard is that thing that happens when someone somehow ‘gets’ you – not just what you’re saying – they somehow understand YOU as a person.  You feel valued because what you have to offer makes sense to someone else.  As a result, you can often then feel more present, alive and ready to be part of whatever is happening around you.

Being heard of course requires another person to be a really good listener!  Most people understand that listening is more than just remaining quiet while someone else is speaking.  However, something else needs to happen.  It’s very easy for listening to be on the surface. We ‘surf listen’ like we surf the net, paying lip service, not really being there for the other person. In truth, our very busy lives make it a difficult discipline to do well.  To be a great listener requires an ability to be heart-centred (grounded) and alert to any of your own behaviours that can undermine your listening in the moment.

Recognise any of the shallow ‘surf listening’ listed here?

  1. Listening to Respond  where we listen until we’ve understood part of what a person is saying and then start thinking about our response while continuing to listen in part-time mode. This can be felt by the other person.  As a ‘listener’, you may feel impatient because you don’t want to forget what you have prepared. Beware of ‘techniques’. You may have received training to say, “Yep… right… uh-huh… mmm…” but this may actually block the person speaking from going deeper into what THEY are saying because they can feel the listening is only half-hearted.  Your intention may be to help, but in reality you’re more focussed on your own needs.
  2. Busy Listening – this is listening while multi-tasking; you say all the right things but are doing something else.  If you’re on the phone, you could be looking at a screen checking emails, or if at home, walking around doing a variety of tasks.  Driving in the car is even a form of busy listening, because you’re doing something else which requires concentration. We’re not fully present to the other person.
  3. Day-dreaming listening – responding on auto-pilot but in reality mostly day-dreaming.  You may be listening but if you are honest with yourself in these moments, something on your mind is taking up some of the your attention.  Again, we are not fully present.
  4. Forced listening – when you actually don’t WANT to listen to the person speaking but feel obliged.  They might be in a position of power, and if you disagree with them, you may feel unable to genuinely respond because of their rank.  Though you are not speaking, this is as far as it goes!  While you’re present physically, you are totally absent emotionally.

When the person speaking is not being supported by the listener they don’t feel heard.  If you’ve been the speaker in any of these situations, chances are you were aware of the absence of the listener at some level.  You may have found it difficult to find your words because you lost your ‘train of thought’ for example.  That’s a direct result of not being supported by someone listening from their heart and in alert presence.

Listening to Understand

This is how we describe listening that happens at the deep end. To engage in deep listening we have to understand the powerful transformation that is possible in a moment where someone puts aside their own needs for another.

Listening to Understand is a skill that requires lots of practice and self awareness.

Try exploring these aspects of deep listening:

  • Your input can wait: A person who listens deeply has no other agenda than to listen.  They are not even trying to help the other person, or do anything other than to allow the person to speak what is on their mind.
  • You want to understand:  As a listener in these situations we might ask for clarification: “so how did that make you feel..?”
  • You don’t seek to influence: We can show that we are listening by nodding or saying something like, “Right… OK… I’m with you… Go on.”  However, even agreeing with a person in this situation lessens the space since we are no longer there as a neutral witness, and this can reduce a persons capacity to let go of strong emotions that may be blocking their insights.
  • You can support them: As people are not used to being heard, they will often need encouragement to keep speaking.  They might ask for your opinion but it’s best to simply keep encouraging them to say more. You can let them know that you’re there as a listener to help their own wisdom be expressed, so they can find a way forward from there.
  • As the listener, ask yourself: What am I doing here that is limiting this person’s capacity to speak?  How can I do less and simply ‘be’ more to allow this person to arrive at their own insights? Am I truly listening or is there something going on for me which is undermining my support of this person?

Unanticipated rewards may emerge when you listen deeply

When a person speaks while another truly listens without judgement and without any agenda, the speaker can discover things that they had no idea they wanted or needed to say!  The listener is like a gigantic basket; there to simply catch the speaker’s offering. In such moments, people can, through their own words, find the solution they needed or alternatively, realise things they hadn’t before.

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