The Power of Listening – Part 1/3

In my doctoral program at the University of British Columbia, before a powerful spiritual experience had me leave university to study enlightenment, I was training to be a restorative listener.

I was convinced, and still am, that what the world lacks most, besides those who can love, is those who can listen. For any who like me cherish listening, here’s a paper written back in those times on the power of listening. In three parts.

The Power of Listening – Part 1/3

by Steve Beckow

Safe Listening

Create a safe, secure environment for speaking, free from interruptions and distractions. Take the phone off the hook. Close the door. Put a sign up saying “Do Not Disturb.” Have enough water, glasses, and kleenex. Visit the washroom beforehand. Have a pad and pencil to make notes for things to do later, rather than getting up and doing them.

If you have made an appointment for restorative listening, avoid making any other appointments that evening. Avoid having to say to your speaker that you must go.

Stay with your listening once begun. Buckle up and go along for the ride. Don’t get up repeatedly or make a phone call. Ask permission if you need to go to the bathroom. Don’t interrupt to ask. Wait until you make a comment and then tack it on.

Be sure you and the speaker have an agreed-upon “contract.” Be sure to have the contract straight before you begin. If you agree not to leave a person until release, then don’t.

Make the other person the number one focus in your life from starting point to release.

Do not take the spotlight off then listener lest you break the spell or destroy their concentration. If you must interrupt, make your interruption short. If you must comment, comment quickly.

Neither interrupt the speaker nor ask questions that break the flow of the narrative. If you positively need to interrupt, ask their permission first and keep it short. Your job is to assist the string of incidents and responses to come out, not to show how wise you are, not to follow your own avenues of investigation, not even to investigate. You are there to see what the message is your speaker wants to convey to you. The speaker usually will not know what that message is, in the beginning. Together you piece it together and then you “get” or understand it. Your job also is to mirror back your understanding, at significant junctures, so that the speaker, who is in the thick of it, can also see what you see. Together, both of you piece the puzzle together until the puzzle becomes am picture.

Identify 100 percent with the speaker. Don’t listen for credibility. Don’t judge the appearance of the self-serving bias. Look underneath the spoken word to the secret speaking that the speaker may not even be aware of. Ask yourself: “If this were me, what would I be wanting to convey? What would I want other people to know most?” Use the information contained in your own answer to guide your further listening. If you come up with an interesting piece of information, on motive or message, confirm with the speaker whether it is applicable to him or her.

Do not set the topic for the speaker to speak on. Let them set the topic. However, expect them to talk about a normal time followed by an upset and then consequences which flowed from the upset. Don’t impose your point of view on the speaker. Just listen with nothing added. Listen to discover the speaker’s point of view and the full picture.

Some speakers speak from ache to ache. First they notice a pain in their neck and talk until it is released. Then they notice their shoulders sagging and talk until the weight has been removed. Then they notice an ache in their heart and talk until that is released. Each ache is the equivalent of a point being made. Allow them to proceed in the manner they wish or are used to.

Listen from the gross to the subtle, the bundled to the unbundled.

Accept whatever they may say as the very next thing to be said, no matter how it sounds to you. Accept that it was constructed as a string and the logic of construction may not be apparent to you and may be as simple as “and then, and then, and then.” Think of their points as being dishes that arrive by a dumbwaiter. One dish arrives, and then another, and then another, with no other logic than linear sequence.

Treat what is said as a series of linked comments. As soon as one comment is finished, look for the next link and draw it out.

Let them take deeper and deeper cuts at their story. For it to be fully told, they may need to take one narrative cut, in which all events are told; one emotional cut, in which their response to events is told; then one contextual cut, in which they shorten it up and see if they understand the whole picture; etc.

Get the emotional truth first and the actual truth later, if necessary.

Build your understanding from the progressive sharing of the speaker. Check out how your developing understanding matches their intention in sharing – ask yourself — and the speaker — if you are on the right track.

Refrain from blaming or hassling the speaker. Don’t encounter them or tell them they are full of malarkey. Don’t contest the speaker’s interpretation. Don’t use anything the other says against him (or her). Express no hostility. Put aside your own agenda. Earn the other’s trust and keep it.

Put your own agenda aside. Don’t ask questions that deflect the speaker from his or her train of thought. If you see the slightest sign of resistance, drop your point and go back to the last point of agreement. An exception might be where you think you can catapult them forward by tieing some things together but refrain from doing even this in the face of resistance. Be flexible and drop your own point as soon as resistance is encountered. If you get something wrong or space out, acknowledge it and go back to the last point of agreement again.

Keep yourself out of the process. Refrain from trying to make a point that arises from or handles your own discomfort. Handle it silently yourself or put it aside. Keep your questions short, devoid of theory, devoid of excuses. Speak Peter Rabbit English. Don’t hang the speaker up by using theoretical language or latinate diction. Don’t draw attention to yourself or say something cute or flashy. The whole process should be focussed on the other person.

Refrain from asking a question so that it jerks the other person out of their process by leaving them wondering what you said or where you’re coming from. Be plain and simple. Refrain from saying out of the blue something like “Do you hate men?” Say instead “I’m curious to know if events left you hating men.” Accept whatever answer they give you as true. If it is not true in the beginning, when they see your trust in them, they will soon begin to tell the truth.

Refrain from asking a question like, “I don’t mean to imply that you don’t know best for yourself, but could it be that the secret of what was happening lies in what he did after you did what you did?” Ask instead: “What was his reaction?”

Accept that many statements they make will be a mixture of truth and falsity or truth and exaggeration. Hold to that part of what they said that was true. Just go with that and ignore the rest. Or interpret what they say so that the truth is extracted and ask them if your understanding is correct.

Treat the speaker’s message as a jigsaw puzzle which you are determined to reconstruct. Be curious. Make the translation. Crack the code. Supply what’s missing. If the speaker is dramatic and exaggerates, divide by two or ten or whatever factor you need to. If the speaker understates, multiply by two or ten. If the speaker is accurate verbally but ingenuine emotionally, supply the emotional truth, and vice versa. Discover the missing pieces that will turn the puzzle into a picture.

Follow every spoken word. Hear the point that is being made, the point that is being implied, and the point underneath it all. Have the other person see that you see the point that is being made. Do not raise the implied point until the time is right and then, if they ask you how you arrived at that understanding, put it down to a hunch. Do not imply that the speaker is speaking on many levels lest you jam the person into their head instead of leaving them vulnerable and open. Speak to the commitment implied in the point underneath it all. Make it right. Accept it.

Sociologists talk about speakers forming their identity in part on the listener’s reaction to what they are saying. If the listener radiates shame, the speaker may stop and change the subject. If the listener radiates admiration, the speaker may wax more eloquent and expansive.

Therefore, to ensure that the speaker will say whatever is necessary to be said, keep your response neutral. See that you avoid excessive or dramatic responses that will push or pull the speaker away from, what is there to be said naturally. A speaker may cave in in the face of your emotional display. Caving in is not release.

Refrain from rushing the process. Watch for their cues as to your own shakiness in listening. They may remove eye contact from you, not because they are involved in a certain mental process, but because you seem restless and they are confused. Or they may feel you are invoking premature closure, and they don’t want to stop. In this case, drop your agenda and return solidly to listening. They will return eye contact as soon as they receive and confirm your indications of steadfastness.

Words indicating closure include “OK.” “Well….” Spoken at the wrong juncture, they can seriously trouble the speaker. Watch their use or else clarify that you were not intending to close the session.

There is a litmus test for whether our listening has been successful: Is the person in release? The truth will set the speaker free. Follow increasing release to the final consummation of freedom from the upset. They will only get at this deep truth in the fact of deep and committed listening.

If in our listening, we stop short of listening, the speaker will fall short of release. It is as if we waited two hours for the fireworks show, listened to the announcer describe the show and the pyrotechnics experts who were going to stage it, and then went home before the fireworks happened. We may leave the person literally aching.

Do not listen past release. Following release, let the speaker simply to end the session and depart. Allow them to be in whatever space they are in. Do not ask for acknowledgment, either directly or indirectly. Leave them with the insights and understandings they have arrived at: that is what you have worked so produce so don’t now bury those fragile insights under excessive talk or self-centred need.

Whatever you do, do not carry the speaker back into the upset by asking for clarification of a certain point or trying to compare the upset with another facet of the person known to you, etc. Let them go. Let them see that release comes from sharing and listening.

If we drive a person back into the original upset with our questions, they may settle back into their original emotional state and forget what they arrived at, so powerful is the trancelike quality of the puzzle.

Second Pass at the same topic

Listen fully and closely, but without rigidity. Full, close listening is one of the best ways to help a person through an upset. As a graduate student, I was used to being with upset people. I saw them come back from the precipice when I listened to three things: (1) the history of the incident, (2) the present-day consequences for the speaker, and (3) how they feel about it all.

Listen until release occurs. An upset may lift at any stage of the conversation – during description of the incident, of the consequences, or of the emotional response to events. A missing piece may suddenly fall in place (“THAT’s why he did it!”). Or the big picture may be seen in its entirety in a moment of insight (“Gosh, I see the WHOLE THING!”). When an upset lifts, I say the person is in release.

I know people are in release when they break into a smile. They may glimpse the missing piece that will put them into release, but not feel able to allow themselves to settle into really acknowledging what they have seen. Often they have just the sheepish trace of a grin. It’s my job to say, “What was that that you just saw?” When they acknowledge it, the grin becomes a broad smile; the secret is out; the conversation is over. The truth, as Jesus said, has made them free.

People in release are flexible, present, alive. People in upset are mechanical, absent, withdrawn. What then is the acid test that listening has worked? The speaker will be in release.

If listeners continue probing past this point, they can send the speaker back into the upset and they can forget the insight that brought them release. It’s better to stop at that moment and allow them to be with what they have seen. Therefore, listen until, but not past, release. Ask, “Was there anything else?” to ensure full listening. If not, close off and let the person return to their life.

The better your listening, the less credit you’ll receive. If you’ve really made a difference, it will show up as totally invisible. The speaker will have the sense of having uncovered everything themselves. Your role will not show up. At best they may thank you for listening. But your true contribution is seldom known.

The best listeners make the process seem effortless, as if a string of words miraculously flowed from the speaker’s mouth, regardless of the fact that they started out with lockjaw. Resist the temptation to be acknowledged by someone in release. Send them on their way, lest you create a new upset.

The best listeners pull the words out with delicacy and finesse in a continuous, steady manner.

Don’t miss a point in the argument. You may have to back the speaker up to make sure that you don’t fail to comprehend a point. But if you allow them to continue while you have missed something, your confusion will shine through and they will feel frustrated. Ask their pardon. Explain why you’ve missed a step. Ask them to repeat it and then allow them to move on.

The listener’s job is to hear and understand every sentence and every word. Confirm your understanding if you’re unclear.

Listen to resistance; then go with it rather than against it. If the person refuses to discuss an obvious aspect of the subject, allow them the space to refuse. If the speaker resists your interpretation, don’t force it upon them. Drop it and drop it completely. Be prepared to stand there not comprehending. Listening is not a place for know-it-alls. It’s a deeply humbling experience.

If you try to sell your interpretation to a resistance speaker, they may close down. Let it go and go back to the last point of agreement and begin again. Watch for the delicate signs of resistance – the clouded brow, slowed-down delivery, drooping shoulders, etc. The discussion needs to be about them, not you. Exception: Occasionally supplying a revealing anecdote about yourself may free them up when they feel too exposed to continue. They may stop and stare at you blankly, too scared to go further out on the skinny branches alone. At that time, you’re showing that you too are willing to be vulnerable and they may need to see you have a stake in the process too before they are willing to continue or to go deeper.

Listen to layers. One may be the speaker’s thoughts; another, their feelings; another, their druthers; and another what REALLY upset them. Listening is often multi-dimensional in real-time. It may be linear; then jump to a synthesis when an insight suddenly arises; then proceed again from a totally-altered standpoint. The listener has to move with the alterations and so must be nimble and unattached in their listening.

Listen to the full score. People communicate in an orchestrated fashion. They put some of the score in words. Some of it is in vocal tone, pitch, looks, gestures, intensity. They may grimace, roll their eyes, weave like a dancer, stab the air. Often we don’t hear the music because we’re simply listening to the words. Good listening means paying attention to the total performance, the full production, the complete score.

Speak a common language. Though we speak English to each other, there is a sense in which we still talk different languages. One person may speak parenting; another, the Wild Country. If one person speaks computerese, speak it back if you can. Talk with byte. Learn the person’s program. Know his or her operating system. If someone else speaks Whistlerian, then head straight down the hill (watching for moguls), be willing to jump, and go for the gold. If you can’t understand their language, propose another. “Do you like football? Good. Well, when the quarterback doesn’t know where the wide-end receiver is after the ball is hupped….” Etc. Communication is difficult without a common language.

How not to Listen to an Upset

Using mixed messages that deny or minimize. The worst thing in the world to say to an upset person is: “Don’t be upset.” Since they’re ALREADY upset, they may feel crazy and react.

Giving advice. Most listeners give up the impact of their listening by hiving off too soon into advice. Make sure you’ve listened fully before you advise. Better still: hold the advice and just get the beef. Good listening almost always makes advice unnecessary.

Having no time or space. Listening is difficult when you put aside too little time for it or talk in a busy setting. If you really want another person to open up, choose a relaxed and quiet place and a time free from interruptions.

What is the Source of an Upset

When human beings are beyond upsets, they can expect the heavens to open wide and angels in chariots to descend, whisking them off to God. Upsets are a hazard of modern-day people being human. Our contribution can lie in helping people find the source of the upset or see the total picture so that the upset can lift.

The real source of an upset usually lies buried in the long-distant past. The source of most upsets seems to lie between birth and age, perhaps, ten. Seldom is the source of a serious upset in the present. The chief players in these early, original upsets is usually the members of our immediate family and our very best and earliest acquaintances. The present culprit usually turns out simply to be a stand-in.

Most upsets yield when we understand the person’s present situation. If upset people are plunged into early-learned ways of meeting a threat –- getting even, being snide, ignoring others, freezing others out – just acknowledge what they day (remembering that tomorrow it may happen to you) and get the full communication.

(Continued in Part 2.)

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