Time to Talk: the power of listening.

In two days’ time on the 24 July, it is Samaritans Awareness Day. The very nature and heart of the Samaritans is the fact that they are there to listen to people when they need to talk to someone. They do so 24/7.

Finding someone to listen to your pain and hurt, to give space to have your questions and concerns, your anxieties and fears heard can be really hard.

Listening is not easy. We spend so much of our time communicating but I often reflect upon how little of that time is spent in real and attentive listening to another. In an increasingly hectic and busy world so many of us spend time surrounded by sound and noise, we hear voices and listen to conversations, but I wonder if we give ourselves the time and space to develop in ourselves the skills of deep and attentive listening.

It is a truism that we communicate in many different ways. Academic researchers have stated that in any communication what we hear is actually the smallest part of what someone is trying to ‘say’ to us. It is argued by Meharabian and others that maybe as much as 90% of what we communicate is ‘non-verbal’ I mean by that we do not only ‘talk’ with our mouths and voices but in so many other ways. Our bodies talk to others. The way we lean forward or away from another; our use of wider posture and gesture; the use of our eyes, as to whether we give direct contact or not; the mannerisms we may have; all parts of us communicate and talk. Whilst airport bookshops are full of theories about how we communicate and much of it are the  theories of the unobserved, it is nevertheless true that when we communicate with those we know well we learn to read the signs of how they are saying what they are saying as much as the ‘what’.

Just as our fingerprints are unique to us, I believe every human individual communicates in a unique and distinctive way. Of course, there are consistent similarities, but the art of true communication is to learn what is my own individual language.

Phoebe Caldwell, whose work and career in speech and language therapy and whose development of intensive interaction especially for people with autism has been so seminal, once said to me that communication is like a bridge. There is a hubris and arrogance that assumes that someone can only communicate if they use my language, my way of using body, and sound and word and silence. Real communication is like a bridge. It is as we meet each other in the middle of that bridge that we learn to understand what another wants to say to us and is saying to us, and vice-versa they learn what matters to us. This is the heart of all good relationships.

But when it comes to listening in my experience it is also often the case that what is left unsaid is often what someone comes to talk to you about. We have to give space for people to share what it is that they want to share and talk to us about. Picture a classic visit to the doctor or to someone you have to speak to about an important or urgent matter. I have learned that many folks hide their hurt and issues in the small talk of generalities. It is that small talk that allows them to gain and build the confidence to share what really troubles or concerns them. But it is often shared at the end, in the moment when their hands are on the door-knob of the exit, at a point when they feel as if they can flee and escape from the encounter that is before them. So it is that we all in our own way have to give people the space to share and talk about what is troubling and bothering them. The art of true listening is not always the sounds we hear but recognise what is being said in the silence between the words, the feelings, and emotions someone wants to share but can only do so through the look of an eye, the gesture of a hand, or the shrug of a shoulder.

I would love it if every child at school spent some time learning about how we can truly and attentively listen to others. How we can learn to not interrupt a speaker because we presume to know what it is they are already going to say; how we can give space for people to go deep into what they want to share; how we can recognise the way in which someone uniquely expresses themselves; how to use open and not closed dialogue; how to be comfortable with a silence just long enough for it to be filed not by our voice but by our listening. I suspect if attentive listening were to be part of our school curriculum of learning then our experience of living in community would be so much richer.

Today there will be many people in our acquaintance who will want to talk, who have found the courage to start to reach out and talk, we can and should encourage them to talk to those who are adept at listening like the Samaritans. But I also hope we can use these days as an opportunity for all of us to start to learn how to listen better. I know personally it is a journey of improvement on which I have a long distance to travel – but it is always better to listen, because it is then we truly begin to hear another.

That well known philosopher the Liverpool football manager Jurgen Klopp once said: “If you want to be a leader you have to be a good listener because if you are a good listener, you might just find out what people want.”

And deep listening really does make a difference as the American poet and therapist John Fox puts it:

When Someone Deeply Listens To You

When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.

When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!

When someone deeply listens to you
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.

When Someone Deeply Listens To You, by John Fox (awakin.org)


Donald Macaskill