Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Listening Should Be Easy. So Why Is It So Difficult?

   Listening should be easy. So why is it so difficult?

After all  we have been listening from the womb. Scientists encourage us to talk to our pregnant bellies and companies have made millions of dollars marketing CDs of classical music to our yet-to-be-born proteges.

Babies learn to speak by imitating the sounds they hear. And we know our  children are  listening because they quote us far too accurately in embarrassing places....
....using snippets of conversation and words we did not want them to know in the first place.

Listening should be simple. But I have learned that listening is an art that takes practice and is the most precious gift we can give to people we care about.

Listening carefully, you may learn surprising answers to difficult questions.

In this month's Oprah magazine, journalist and author, Gloria Steinem recounted her visit to a rural village in Zambia where she came across a 'talking circle' of  30 women who were mourning 2 of their villagers.

 The women listened carefully to each other and Ms Steinem listened too, with the help of a translator. She was unsure if she would be able  to connect  with the women, coming from such different backgrounds. But through humor and her willingness to listen, they began to trust her and the women revealed heartbreaking stories.

She heard how the two women, desperate for money for their families, had prostituted themselves and disappeared.

Gradually the women in the circle opened up about their difficulties of daily living.

The women explained that money was short for their families. Their husbands worked at tourist lodges, but women weren't allowed to work there. 

The women tended crops in the fields, with the intention of providing enough money so their children could go to school. Each year as the produce was almost ready to harvest, elephants would eat the hard grown food. With no other options some women, desperate to feed and educate their children, turned to prostitution.

Gloria goes on to say

" The situation seemed hopeless. But when I asked what would help them most, the answer was surprising: an electric fence to keep out the elephants."

With the help of a few friends in NY, Ms Steinem raised the money to build a fence. The following year she went back and saw the women had harvested a bumper crop of maize, enough to feed their families and sell the extra for school expenses.

She said, 

" If you asked me how to stop sex trafficking in this village I would never have come up with the idea of keeping elephants out of the gardens."

Here are 5 strategies she says she learned from 'the parable of the fence.'

1. Helping Begins with Listening
2. Context is everything
3. People who experience a problem know best how to solve it
4. Big problems often have small solutions
5. Do what ever you can help

I have learned that when it is time to listen to something someone has to tell you, something important, fragile, risky or  frightening, how you listen can either shut them down or help them process, problem solve, move forward and heal.

It's tempting, to jump in with advice, try to solve the problems and move the person on. But as Ms Steinem demonstrated, if you listen for long enough and carefully enough and ask the right questions, a suitable solution will often come from the person stating the problem in the first place. 

Your own solutions, if offered quickly are more likely to be in answer to your own perceptions of the issue, rather than as a considered response to theirs.  

Also it's important to remember that:-

Sharing something personal is a risk. The person who needs you to listen may be wondering....

  • Will that person judge me? 

  • Will they try to solve the problem for me? 

  • Will they keep my private information to themselves? 

  • Will they really hear what I am trying to say and understand how I feel or will they offer advice that might be helpful to them but is of no relevance to me?

If someone offers you their precious feelings, thoughts and emotions. Treasure them, value them and listen without judgement:- That is a gift you can give them. 

Listening carefully to understand, rather than to reply is the simplest and most effective way to bring comfort.

Everything else: ways forward,  possible solutions and eventual healing all start with the gift of listening carefully first.

Who listens to you best? What is it they do? How can we become better listeners? How do you know when someone has really  listened to you?

If you enjoyed this post, please remember to share it with your friends.

Thanks for listening.

Let me know how you are doing this week.

Love to you all

Please email me at or leave a comment on this post below. I'd love to have your feedback. 
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  1. A lovely story. Yes, listening properly is so important.

  2. Thanks for commenting and sharing the post Liz.

    Yes, one of the most most important strategies for successful listening is that "it's not about you." It's not your problem and therefore the solution is not your problem either. Your job is to listen and ask helpful questions that help the story-teller work out what solutions are possible. It's not about having the answers, it's listening and asking the important questions. Gillyx

  3. Thanks, Gilly! I found myself giving advice instead of listening the other day. This is a great reminder. And Gilly, when we were together in the cafe', I noticed that you are a good listener.

  4. Hi Beth, I think that advice has its place in certain conversations, but shouldn't be offered instead of listening, or before the listener has shown they have really understood the issues from the person's perspective.
    It was a pleasure to listen to you! I learned a lot about the great work you are doing for

  5. Thank you, Gilly. Again, you've come through with an excellent post!

    1. Thank you Marie, for continuing to read and comment. Greatly appreciated. Your own journey through medical crises always adds to the discussion.Gilly

  6. Amazing story, Gilly! Even when we think we're done listening, and know what to do, this story shows me that we can't stop being curious. What if she had started to implement programs to help stop sex trafficking without stopping to ask what they needed?

    I've been there. I think I have a great solution but in truth, the person closest to the action has a far different perspective and stronger solution.

    I am always inspired and uplifted when I come to your blog. Thank you!

  7. I agree. It is as an incredible story Alli!

    Interestingly Gloria Steinem had just been in Gambia at a conference on sex trafficking before traveling to Zambia and hearing these women's stories. She may well have thought she had solutions to their problems having spent a lot of time discussing the issues. However even with her expertise, she realized she didn't have the answers. That takes humility, introspection and knowing to ask questions like "What would Help?" rather than moving straight to offering solutions. She was modeling collaboration and respect.

    I love your perspective and I'm always honored when you have a chance to read and comment. Gilly

  8. Thanks so much,Gilly you are faabulous to bring your writings to us all! Yes in the training to become a great mentor we provide skills in the very 1st lesson on" HOW TO LISTEN".People come away from that realizing that they never really did before.Two things seem to be important to be really effective:a)Real Listening skills and 2) a Mentor/Listener who ideally has done "de-fragmentation" on THEIR past hurts so that they don`t have to interrupt the one in need when they want to find their OWN answers.

    1. Thanks Lara. Being able to put your own experiences and hurt aside in order to listen effectively, is crucial. Dealing with your own issues at a separate time certainly 'frees' you to be fully present. GIllyx

  9. My husband was an attentive listener to me and his students. He and I spent lots of time listening to each other. It was a great gift for forty years. Thanks for the reminder and wonderful example.

    1. What a gift you gave each other and one of the many things I suspect you miss greatly about him. Thank you for taking the time to come over from Twitter to comment Elaine. It is wonderful getting to know you. Gilly