Today is “Free Listening Day,” an event scheduled by Urban Confessional to be part of National Conversation Week.  I’ll be holding up a “Free Listening” sign in downtown Annapolis to see what’s on people’s minds. For me, listening skills are critical both for my personal and professional life.  I look for every opportunity to develop my ability to listen–quietly, with an open heart and mind, and without my own agenda, judgment or interpretations creeping in. The first part is easy.  Close mouth, open heart. It’s the “open mind” part that trips most of us up. We’ve been taught to listen “reflectively”–to restate what the speaker has been saying, in the listener’s own words, to indicate the listener’s understanding.  “What I hear you saying is…” The caveat here is that as listeners, once we choose our own words, we lose the nuances of the speaker’s choice of words.  Often, a paraphrase isn’t helpful.  As a coach, I believe that the best way to show I’ve been listening is to use the client’s own words.  By doing so, we can dig further into the meaning of the language they have chosen (either consciously or unconsciously) to help unlock their deeper truths.
If we’re really listening, we’ll get curiouser and curiouser, like Alice in Wonderland seeing things for the first time.  Focusing on their language, instead of our interpretations, will keep us from the worst possible pitfall for a listener: making whatever they’re saying about us.  Using their words leads us away from giving advice or making judgments, and into more interesting questions.

Unless the listener is mindful and aware of them, their own biases, opinions, agendas, judgements, and interpretations will affect their understanding of the speaker’s intended meaning.

Today’s “free listening day” is about holding a safe space for others to speak what’s on their minds and in their hearts.  Here’s are a few things to try:
    • Practice listening without making it about you.  Refrain from saying, “Oh, me too!” or “I know how you feel.” Once you do, the focus is no longer on listening.  Now it’s about your own experience or your desire to prove yourself worthy of connection.  Check your self-orientation at the door.  If the speaker wants to know if it’s ever happened to you, they’ll ask.
    • Be aware of the judgments that inevitably pop up.  You’ll be tempted to rate the speaker’s problem or worse, the speaker.  Whatever they’re saying doesn’t make them bad or good, nor is their situation bad or good.  It just is.  See if you can let it be.
    • Be aware that thoughts about what the speaker “should” do will inevitably pop into your head.  That does not mean it’s a good idea to mention them; it’s better to let those thoughts pass.  If you have an agenda for someone, they’ll sense it, and you won’t be listening anymore.
    • Refrain from offering advice (even if it’s requested). Most people don’t want or need your advice, even if they ask for it.  Giving advice robs the speaker of the chance to hear their own voices and to drop into their physical bodies, where their emotional intelligence can kick in to make the next right decision.
Your conversation might sound like this:
Speaker: I can’t seem to solve this problem.  I should have a better handle on it by now.
You: You said, ‘I should have a better handle on it.’ I’m curious–what leads you to believe you should have a better handle on it?  What will be different when you have a better handle on it?  What would a ‘better handle’ look like?
Using any or all of those questions (and definitely not in rapid-fire succession–these are just examples of questions I might ask a client, listening deeply for their answers) gets to the heart of the issue.
Often, they’ll work through the problem themselves, and you’ll be amazed at how much easier conversations are when you don’t feel like you have to be wise, fix someone’s problem, or impress them with your knowledge.
When they say, “I never thought about it like this before!” that’s the moment you’ll know they’ve begun to shift their perspective–not because you’ve given them advice, but because you’ve heard them.
And for the first time, they’ve heard themselves.
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