In this response for our Navigating with Kindness series, Tom Andrews reflects on what it really means to listen.
Tom Andrews is the Head of Member Support at ACEVO, supporting Chief Executives of charities and social enterprises across the UK. He is a coach, facilitator and also a counsellor at Pilgrims Hospices. He previously founded and was CEO of People United, and was founder and CEO of Music for Change.
Tom chose to reflect on the prompt card from our Navigating with Kindness resource “Listen, Listen, Listen” (which is pictured below) along with the following prompts:
Deep active listening is vital during any project, in teams, in families. We deepen our connections and understanding when we listen to what is behind the words, when we give others the space to express themselves without interruption.
In these times of social distancing, how are you listening, and to whom? Are there more voices – on social media, video conferencing, in the news – but less space to be heard? Are there new voices and new messages that are finally being heard? Are you listening more closely, to your family, colleagues, associates? What are you hearing?
Tom’s reflections below encourage us to think about what it really means to listen, and what the outcomes can be if we make the effort to quiet our own experiences in order to truly hear someone else’s.
This reflection is about listening. Here are some sounds to listen to. Pause, maybe close your eyes, and just listen.
How far did you get?
If you stopped and listened for the whole 3 minutes, I salute you. I know what I would have done, listened for a bit, think ‘OK nothing’s much happening’ and start looking at other things.
The sounds you hear are from the bottom of my garden. You can hear my daughter saying, ‘what are you doing?’ and a train running past, as well as the birds. In an echo of Liz and Stacie’s wonderful blogs, I realise how rarely have I sat and just listened to these sounds, to soak them in – without the need to be productive – to be present, to just be.
In my work I do a lot of listening; as a counsellor, a coach and someone that supports others on a one to one basis.
I’m learning that when we truly listen, we listen with our ears, our eyes, our body, our instincts. People feel heard, and we begin to understand what is really being said. Often this is not verbalised but is there under the surface, the real substance of what is being communicated. It feels a gift, a privilege, to listen to another human speak their truths.
The philosopher Martin Buber talks about the idea of an ‘I-Thou’ relationship, where we meet another as an equal, co-travellers and companions, affirming their whole being. He contrasts this with ‘I-It’ meetings that are characterised by a subject and an object, seeing the other as merely a form of utility. In our current world this certainly feels apposite, when we see another person as just ‘the other’ we miss their essential humanity. It diminishes us and them.
Writing about Buber recently, author, counsellor, and residential director, Simon Cole, explains that real listening takes humility; to be open and available to be affected by the meeting. This really chimed with me, the idea of taking a risk to be present and to be changed. I know though when I listen, I still struggle with my desire to help, my wanting to please, my need to organise and share my thoughts; all taking away from being in the moment. I remind myself that the feedback – whether that’s from an under-pressure Chief Executive or someone recently bereaved – consistently reveals that the most important aspect is not a clever answer or a wise anecdote, but simply the fact that they were heard and were not alone.
But maybe, before we do any of this, the first bit of listening we need to do is listen to ourselves. This takes practice and curiosity. To be intrigued by what is going on for me now, my feelings, thoughts and my biases and behaviours. This awareness is the foundation for change. And it’s tough to do this when we are constantly on the move, which brings us back to the start.
To pause and stop feels important; to allow ourselves to listen, to recharge, to connect. I know I am more comfortable musing about this stuff rather than turning off the computer and sitting quietly. And listening – like kindness – can be a quietly radical act: I see you, I hear you, and I am open to be changed.