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 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.
" 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 ...to 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?
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Thanks for listening.
Let me know how you are doing this week.
Love to you all
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