Talking is a natural part of life and social engagement. We explain how we feel, ask questions and learn through talking. But, this happens only when it is done well, which often it is not. Because, to be a helpful form of communication, talking relies heavily on listening.
Talking then, at its worst, can be a sort of listening backwards. Literally, chronologically, if you like, because we are talking before we have done any listening. And, when we stop talking, it still isn’t to listen, but to gather our thoughts for the next onslaught of verbiage.
But also figuratively, because we have already made assumptions. We already think we know the answers and do not expect, and are not prepared, to hear anything that will change our mind.
So, why do we talk?
Sometimes, perhaps, to avoid disappointment and hide our fears. Because something might be said that we don’t want to hear, that might make us work or would make us feel vulnerable. On these occasions we might be listening with only ‘half an ear’ or be on auto-pilot.
Other times, we may be talking to dispel the idea of our own ignorance and create myths.
We have a story that we cling to, it is what we as individuals use to explains us to ourselves. And we can use these stories and narratives to disguise knowledge and understanding we lack and to make ourselves appear more than we are. More successful, more secure, more able to fit in. We listen only enough to find information that proves our theories.
Listening properly takes time, courage and care. We have to take the time to understand and assimilate the information. It may be difficult to hear and we will only commit if we genuinely want to improve relationships.
Listening should be “deliberate, focused, inclusive…listening to feelings as well as facts…body language…silences and pauses.” (Ellin, 1994, p.41). In this definition, Ellin is specifically talking about counselling. However it feels like a good basis for any kind of listening, with family, friends and even in our professional relationships.
The idea that talking is really listening can be confusing. After all, without a voice, we would be frustrated. Just imagine, we could not interrogate and counter-argue. We could not explain our feelings and ideas.
However, it could be useful for a time, in order to hone our listening skills. As these improve, we may slowly claim our voice back. But as an instrument of learning, of understanding and insight, not as a club to bludgeon other people with.
The Listening Workplace
Just as in other aspects of our lives, our workplace relationships suffer from familiarity, pre-judgement and our own insecurities.
The pressures and expectations at work often ask us to speed up our actions and reactions. We use shorthand assumptions, believe we know best and don’t always acknowledge others. And, like politicians, the idea that we have to perform and are not allowed mistakes, means feeling like we always have to be right.
How often have we failed to listen to ideas, not understood someone’s problems properly, not realised the contribution of individuals to the whole. This undermines people and teams because it is not really about engagement, not about being open or reaching out.
But, if we slowed down to begin with, it might save time later on and get better results. People and teams that understand, respect and care for each other will find better solutions invariably than those who are only interested in confirming their own world view.
If you are not listening, you are not understanding others and you are not helping others understand you. You are not really communicating in any meaningful way.
Communicating, not listening backwards
Talking is natural, important and something to which we humans are very attached. And talking, when done well, furthers dialogue, knowledge and avoids boxing ourselves into corners we cannot readily escape.
But if we ask questions but only respect our own answers; if we look like we are listening just to earn another spell on the soap box; if we respond only to what we think has been said, then we are not talking to listen, we are just listening backwards.
Ellin, J. (1994) ‘Listening Helpfully’, Souvenir Press (Educational & Academic) Ltd.