The right kind of listening

This week I worked with the most incredible group of people at a large insurance firm. They were engaged, interested and really keen to ‘get it right’.

When the training day was drawing to a close, I was asked for some very specific advice- what question would I ask if I was concerned about someone’s mental health? It’s an interesting question and one that I get asked a lot. There isn’t, of course, one answer or a perfect script to follow. There isn’t a question that is ‘right’ versus another that is ‘wrong’. So, what drives the request for a specific question to ask? In my experience fear plays a part: fear of getting it wrong; fear of making things worse; fear of anything to do with mental health and the state of our minds; fear of the conversation- how will it unfold; fear of an unknown quantity.

I decided to dig a little deeper and before long we uncovered a preoccupation with wanting to do something- by which the person meant ‘solve’ a problem, offer solutions, give advice, make ‘it’ go away, help the other person feel better. This is so usual and, in my opinion, attached to a false belief that there is no value to listening if there isn’t a resolution. And, as a result, here’s what really happens when we listen- our thoughts take over: judgement, curiosity and intrigue set in. We get busy talking to ourselves. We’re not, in fact, listening. In our minds we’re asking:

“Why did she ….?”

“He should ….”

“I can’t believe she….”

“Why doesn’t he…?”

“Couldn’t she just…?”

And out of our mouths comes a ‘question’: ‘Have you thought about doing x…?’ Hmmm…..

What this really means is that you’ve thought about doing x and now you’re telling me by way of a ‘question’.

I guess in the workplace we’re very used to this approach. Someone asks you how to work the photocopier- you tell them-they do it- the end. But what kind of communication IS this and where does this transaction of telling and doing ‘fit’ if we want to consider someone’s mental health? In fact, where does it fit if we want to develop a healthy and empowered workplace that considers people amongst the priorities?

For me, when it comes to asking anybody how they are, there are simple (not necessarily easy) rules of engagement:

  • Be authentic
  • Ask because you want to know- be genuine in your interest
  • The quality of your hearing should be engaged listening- not distracted clock watching, interrupting, comparison giving, judgement or telling
  • Surrender to the possibility that you don’t have a solution
  • Be confident that you are not the expert in what the other person is thinking and feeling
  • Expect to find it frustrating that, in this instance, your opinion isn’t needed, wanted or even important
  • Be delighted that listening is the solution
  • Focus on listening- and this means really listening- not problem solving in your head-not rummaging around for a question that disguises your opinion and your advice.
  • Listen until the end and wait your turn
  • Expect to find it difficult- expect it to be a challenge- do it anyway

So, in response to the original question, here’s my advice on what you ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ say: start with the right kind of listening. Focus on that, and the rest will follow. When I trained as a nurse we studied listening- we kept reflective journals, we wrote exams about it, we practised, we made mistakes, we practised some more. We were assessed on our listening skills; and rightly so, because that’s what it is: a skill.

The great news is, because listening is a skill, we can all learn to listen.

Jane Beston, Learning Director

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