The Power of Listening

When I studied counselling for my Sociology Ph.D. program in the 1980s, I relied on Problem Solving Therapy. There I was at the side of the road trying to sell my solutions to other people, hawking my wares, and getting nowhere.

People didn’t want my solutions. They wanted to tell their story. They wanted me to listen. And if I didn’t they resisted and rebelled.

So, after frustrating myself no end trying to peddle my answers, I finally fell silent and began to listen. And I listened and I listened. Four hours of listening. Five hours. Eight hours once (just to prove a point to myself).

And what happened was that people’s puzzles began to become pictures. Suddenly after talking and talking, a person would light up and go “Aha!” They now saw what they had been overlooking all these years.

With that, they were up from their chair and out the door. They just wanted to communicate what they had discovered. At last they now knew what had been driving them.

You recall, perhaps, that I left my Sociology Ph.D. program because I had a vision of the entire journey of an individual soul from God to God. That came about because I applied a notion of listening theory to life.

I had been listening to people as a form of restorative therapy and saw that when they found the missing piece to their puzzle, the puzzle became a picture.

I said to the universe, “If it’s true that people’s early lives are a puzzle, which then becomes a picture, could it be that life itself is a puzzle? And, if so, what is the picture that life is?”

I didn’t expect an answer but instantly the front window of my car disappeared and I was left staring at a working model of life.

What I’m saying here isn’t about that vision. It’s about listening itself.

I’ve seen very few upsets that yielded to Problem-Solving Therapy, but few upsets that didn’t yield to listening. To put the matter another way, in my view, “fixing” does not set us free, but the truth does. And the truth emerges through getting a full chance to say what’s so for us to a committed listener.

Listening is one of the rarest gems around. Very few people listen. And of those who listen, very few really, really listen, I mean, listen for clues, listen for metaphors, listen to the tone of voice, listen to the feelings, watch the hand movements, look for hidden commands – there’s so much to listen to and any one piece can be the one that completes the puzzle.

Like the woman who said that she used to walk into the ocean, found it cold, and would quickly run out again. Was that the way she was in relationship? And pop. She got why it was that she constantly left relationships after only a few months.

Or the number of people who have sicknesses that reflect statements like “pain in the neck,” “pain in the backside,” etc. Or all the people who’ve been called “lazy no-good good-for-nothings” and are now Type A personalities or “worthless tramps” who are now totally-indispensable members of any team they join. (How does that happen? (1)

But some of the keys are that people have to have a long enough go at it, they have to have our undivided attention, they need feedback that shows we’re keeping up with them, they could use mirroring – not too much mirroring, not too many interruptions. They need something from us every so often to show that we have a hand in the game – so we may wish to share just a foreshortened version of something that reveals an aspect of us, just to show we’re a player.

But mostly it’s a good long go at it that people want. So many people have never been listened to. It’s sad really. Enough listening to really follow some leads where they want to pursue and a willingness to stick with it until the picture emerges.

If you listen well, people usually know nothing about it. They may say that they enjoyed having a conversation with us or that we’re a brilliant conversationalist. But very often they don’t know what happened.

My mother was a brilliant listener. I cannot tell you anything she ever might have said but everyone loved her and came over to Mrs. Beckow’s house when she “put on a pot of coffee.”

I can truly say that there are very few things I enjoy doing more than listening. It’s one of the best gifts one person can give another. It’s one of the most closely guarded secrets in human society. And it has more power to heal than anything I know on the Third Dimension. If the cabal knew the power of listening, they might have patented it. Or banned it.

There’s nothing more satisfying that I know of than looking at someone’s face light up because they now know the matter that has escaped them all their life and made their life hell.


(1) It’s called “living a script.”

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