Around mid-March, as we began to get used to the lock-down restrictions, group zoom calls became a thing.

My inbox pinged up with people wanting to imitate a social conversation, online.  As we were cast into the lock-down, in my circles, we were reaching out.

I approached the first Friday night Zoom call with a glass of red wine and tried to prop my laptop in way to give me a good angle.  Five months later, I don’t care how the camera is angled!  We logged-on, said our hellos, and sat awkwardly as we realised this conversation was going to be a lot different to sitting around a table.  We were interrupting, someone suggested we raise hands to talk, it all felt very stilted.  We couldn’t chat.  I didn’t know where to look.  We met again the next week for a quiz, saved ourselves a repeat of the awkwardness from the week before.

I began to face-time friends more.  Across the world, we were all in a similar boat.  One friend in Thailand told me how his school was closed and he was advised to leave but was staying on.  I realised that I didn’t know he had been living on that island.  In recent years, our relationship was based on stringy texts and the odd call.  Old flatmates reconnected and we chatted into the hours, desperately trying to find our phone chargers to keep the conversation going.

What I loved about this desperately confusing time were the connections I was forming and reforming.  Bar the disastrous zoom attempt to imitate a Saturday night conversation, the one-to-ones I had, felt affirming.  I was not alone, I have friends and I have good people in my life.  I leaned into these conversations.

When we entered lock-down, it felt that the rug had been pulled out from under me.  With strict confines put on how I could outwardly interact with people, I looked forward to propping my phone against my bedroom window and laughing with friends.

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In my work as a coach and mindfulness teacher, I have to listen to the client well.  My objective is to be there at that moment and only be there.  For a lot of us, this can be difficult but at the start of lock-down, I found my friendships strengthened as we all held the space for each other.  Why?  I don’t know.  We didn’t discuss the pandemic, we discussed each other, we began to learn more about each other.  The worries that came up went deeper than the pandemic.  Covid-19 was the catalyst that started these conversations.

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This summer, I ran a course for primary teachers on communication skills.  I begin with how we communicate with ourselves and move to how we communicate with others.  The lesson on listening was remarkably signifying for a lot of people.  Comments flowed in at how the steps were practiced and the differences they made around the dinner table.

If we ask people if they think they are a good listener, most will probably tell us they are.

Stephen R.Covey has said,

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” 

We can all be guilty of this.  Someone talks, we listen and process a solution or a response that uses well-worn out phrases that really present nothing of value.  They are empty of purpose or personal sentiment.  

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Active Listening

So what are the elements?  In coaching, we practice Active-Listening.  Learning these steps and becoming aware of how you apply them can make you a better listener.

  1. Paying attention
  2. Withholding judgment,
  3. Reflect
  4. Clarify and Summarise
  5. Share

1:  Pay attention to the speaker, not your own thought

Devote your whole attention to the person in front of you.  With mindfulness, we learn how to be present in this moment.  This is an opportunity to practice mindfulness.   Your own thoughts will arise, try not to engage with them.  If you feel yourself reacting to what is being said, take a deep breath and again, come back to the person in front of you.  Become aware of the person’s voice, posture, what is their body telling you?

2:  Practice Non-Judgement

There is no need to agree or disagree with what is being said.  You are there to let the person speak.  Active Listening requires an open mind.  Be prepared to be amazed.

And, understand that silence is good too.  Don’t feel the need to fill a space with some words.

3:  Reflect and paraphrase

Never assume you fully understand what the person is saying.  Reflecting is an active listening technique that indicates that you and your counterpart are on the same page.  Use phrases such as So you’re saying that ……. What did you do after this happened?

A recent study found that while paraphrasing does not necessarily make people feel understood, it does create a greater sense of closeness and intimacy in a conversation. This is a key part of building trust and possible friendships (Weger et al., 2010).

4:  Clarify / Ask Questions / Summarise

If you don’t fully understand something, ask them to clarify.  Let me see if I’m clear, are you saying…… Wait a minute, I don’t follow, can you explain a bit more.

Being a great listener lets you hold space for someone in their vulnerability.  Asking for further clarification invites a thoughtful response and lets the person feel listened to and valued.

5:  Sharing

When the conversation comes to a natural end.  And you feel that your friend or colleague has said as much as they can on the topic, you’ll understand their perspective more.  When you are here, you can ask deeper questions, you can turn the conversation into a problem-solving one without giving advice.  Here is where you can share your suggestions.  Ask What has not been tried?  What could be done?  If you could change this, how would you?

You are continuing a line of query with your friend but not offering a solution.  When we are listened to, and given the permission and space to speak, we tend to come up with our solutions.  Active Listening can be instrumental in helping our relationships with ourselves and others.

As we listen more sensitively to people, they start to listen to themselves more carefully and pay attention to their thoughts and feelings (Rogers & Farson, 1957).

By practicing our listening skills, we help ourselves, our friends and our colleagues to develop self-awareness.  You also deepen your connection to others and to yourself.

The next time you are talking to someone, see if you can apply one or more of the above steps.  Start being an Active Listener today, tap into how it makes you feel and how it is making the other person feel.  After the conversation ask yourself how that interaction was different to others.  You might just surprise yourself.

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