Listening – do we really listen or are we merely waiting for an opportunity to speak next?

Guest blog post by Andrew McMahon, VP Research, Evaluation and Innovation, I Am Here

Today’s blog post comes to us from Andrew McMahon. Andrew is I Am Here’s VP of Research, Evaluation and Innovation – based in Newcastle, Australia. He is passionate about workplace mental health and suicide prevention. When not working, he loves gardening, eating, drinking wine and reading.

I used to think I was an awesome listener. My ears are big. I am easy going. People loved to share a yarn with me.

That was until I did a two-day course a few years back. As is the normal practice, you get to meet everyone, share your story, why you are here. Before long, we were headlong into the practical exercises. One of the first ones was around listening. Easy. I can do that. All I had to do was listen to my fellow trainee tell me about their first day at work. Ten minutes. I had to listen for ten minutes. That was my sole job – to listen. You can do this Andrew.

Ten minutes later – I suddenly realised that I didn’t really know how to listen. You see, the other person spoke for about two minutes and I spoke for eight minutes – not great listening! What I was really good at, was listening to find my next opportunity to speak, to share my similar experiences, to share what I did in a similar situation. I thought I was building empathy with my fellow trainee by sharing my experience and advice, when really what I needed to learn to do was listen and simply acknowledge how tough things must have been.

Needless to say, I was mortified when this was shown back to me – did I mention it was filmed! Ouch, what a wakeup call.

To demonstrate what I mean, I want you to think of place you have been on holidays to. One you really explored and enjoyed, you have fond memories and emotions from. Perhaps it was the company, the food, the vibe. I am sure you can easily conjure up the sights and smells. Got it now? Really picture it, deep breath in and smell that lovely aroma. There you go.

So now, imagine you are telling someone all about it, you are on a roll, sharing with them about how a dish smelt – you take a breath – and bam – in the other person jumps to tell you about where they went in the same city or country, or what they ate or where they stayed. It kind of dulls the emotion doesn’t it? You can tell when you aren’t really being listened to, can’t you? Have you been there? Have you done this? It’s natural, it’s a point of connection that we want to share.

What I learnt that day, was that the real value of listening, comes when you can learn to stay quiet. Yep, say nothing! Realise it is not your turn to share or provide advice, but rather just be. Even though you may be itching to say something, unless you get asked, learn to be quiet. As a wise friend of mine once taught me ‘we have two ears and one mouth, use them in that ratio’.

Of course, it is very important to be an active listener – to acknowledge what is being said with the odd ‘aha’ or head nod, perhaps ask a clarifying question or even repeating what has been said in your words. Also use your body. Use your eyes, keep your arms open, show the person speaking that you are listening, but learn to be quiet.

To make it harder, in this modern world, there are so many distractions. Our phone notifies us of everything or our computer dings to share the exciting news that yet another email has arrived. It’s not easy – but it can be done. It takes practice. I know I need to work on it constantly. But each day, I try and stop what I am doing and practice listening, intently and with purpose.

Perhaps you could pause reading this blog right now. Go get a cup of tea in the kitchen, ask someone a question and practice listening. Just be quiet and really listen. Off you go .. I will wait …

So how did it go? Was it hard? Need more practice? That’s ok – so do I.

You see, when we learn to really listen, we can pick up a great deal more information – both in what has been said and what has remained unsaid, and also in body language. Why do you think this is important?

I want you to imagine that your fellow Team Member has seen all the amazing vibe from the launch of I Am Here. What you don’t know is that he or she has really been struggling lately. They know they need help but don’t know where to start. Following on from the positive culture change, they get brave and ask for help. Yet, we aren’t really listening to them. We miss their key points because we are thinking back to when we had the same issue and what we did. Imagine you were that person – how would you feel? Would you open up again to someone else? Probably not.

Listening – one of the five key skills you learn as an I Am Here Ambassador – can make a difference. I know it has in my life.

If you need a three-word slogan to get you started, then courtesy of my kiwi friend Amy, here is one for you. It’s super simple, but uber effective.

Stop. Breath. Go.

Think about it.

  • Stop – and take what’s being said in – really take it in.
  • Are you finding yourself ready to talk – then take a breath – check if they have really finished and plan what you want to say that demonstrates you listened.
  • Then, and only then, go for it.

Really connecting with your fellow human being, through actively listening and showing you care, does make a difference. Happy listening Tribe Members. I know you have got this.

Got a question or comment about listening? Jump over to the forums and share your thoughts and ideas with other Tribe Members now.