We hear the stories often – a manager complaining about employee attitudes that are not aligned to company values; a hurt parent remonstrating about a daughter or son who seems to have gone off the rails; an exhausted mother of three small children relating her tiredness of having to cope whilst her husband is off on many business trips; a young lady who feels alienated from her so-called friends; a leader being near breaking point from work pressures that have intruded into personal time and the relational and financial stresses that result from a complex business environment; and an emotionally distraught woman who is not getting the necessary support and care from her husband. These stories and many others need to be heard by compassionate friends and colleagues in order for healing to take place – this is unfortunately rare as real listening is a skill not acquired by many.

We miss opportunities in life – to care, to encourage, to express empathy, to be there for someone – when we don’t really listen. We may hear the words that are being uttered, but our own thoughts, potential solutions and self-interest typically crowd out our minds and prevent the nuances of the real issues at stake from penetrating our hearts and influencing us. Typically, the seeming need to be a solution-provider or have a relevant and helpful answer drives our brain to scout through all the possible alternatives swiftly so that we can come up with the answer to the posed problem. In so doing, we ignore the emotion being expressed and shut down possible healing that could be experienced by the other person. We become a block to the restoration process.

True listening requires the following components to be effective:

  • The ability to recognise emotion – when a person starts sharing emotional content, the skill to read between the lines of the uttered words and perceive the feelings of the other is paramount. When deep feelings are being expressed, our sensory radars should recognise the moment.
  • The skill to pause – this involves a deliberate holding back of one’s own thoughts, ideas or solutions, and a willingness to just listen.
  • The desire to understand – the thought “because it is you and you are important to me, I am thus going to attempt to understand you deeply” should be uppermost in your mind. Your agenda is not important at this time.
  • The ability to reflect – phrases like “so, it seems as if you are saying …” should be used to reflect back the content of what you are hearing from the other person. This gives the other person confidence that you are listening to them in their hour of need.
  • The heart to offer compassion – the expression of genuine love and care gives people hope and the security to discuss matters with you.
  • The discipline to keep your issues out of the discussion – we all have issues, but these should not be introduced at this time.
  • The skill to facilitate potential solutions – the idea here is that the person expressing the feelings should take ownership of them and work out possible answers. The listener should just facilitate this process and not adopt the role of solution-provider.
  • The promise of ongoing support – the affirmation that the two of you can meet again to further discussions gives the one who is hurting assurance that he or she is not alone.

Learning to listen is a key leadership and relationship skill. It not only garners respect from those who are followers or from those who are close to you, but also leverages your potential influence on those who are hurting. True listening builds bridges between people and facilitates commitment – if only we would take time to listen!

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