The Gift of Listening

When I sold my business in March 1997, I was persuaded by my aromatherapist and pal, Jane, that we should go to Skyros. So off we toddled in July. Have you ever been? Blimey what a schlep! You fly to Athens and stay overnight in a pretty basic hotel, then there’s an endless coach trip across the Greek mainland and finally a ferry to the island. It’s this grisly travel which makes the Greek islands so special when you get there because most people haven’t got the time or the true grit to undertake such a journey, especially when tired and in need of a holiday. I don’t think I would any more. However, Skyros was well worth it way back then.

It’s quite a testing personal development holiday in many ways; I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself. About 60 mainly single people sleeping in huts up the hillside. Fortunately Jane and I could share. Mostly people were sharing with folks they’d never met. And a torch-lit walk to the showers/loos, a bit like camping. Goat bells and cockerel crows to keep you awake all night or up early and just as well, as you’ll be off to dawn Tai Chi. It all took a while to settle in to routine. And Skyros likes a routine and a democratic process. You all muck in with meal preparation, running the fortnight if you want to participate in Demos, but the lovely thing we started on the first night was Listening.

We were given the opportunity to meet daily in pairs, simply to listen to one another. Some bright spark had – aeons ago – worked out that a lot of strangers staying together in these circumstances might be stressful on all sorts of different levels, so we were encouraged to pair up and just listen to each other. Not to do anything other than that. Not to comment. Not to agree or disagree. Not to go “oh, I KNOW what you mean!” and steal the attention back to yourself. Just to listen. And for the other person to be really and truly heard, even at a soul level.   The pairing happened that first evening and I was immediately approached by a tall young man I had noticed on the ferry. And our daily listening pairing worked very well indeed.   What was said in the pair, stayed in the pair.

It’s the quality of care that you bring to the listening that’s important. And Skyros encouraged no judgement as I’ve already said. So your job is to focus, to listen hard, to hear what’s being said in the words, in the gap, in the breathing. And I loved it.

And it’s exactly the same in coaching. When I get an email from a prospective client and sometimes these can be quite long, there are some people where I know I am immediately going to have to set up a call, just so that I can listen to them tell their story in their own words. You’d be amazed what you can hear in their voice and in their words and in what they don’t say.   And when you clarify with a question or two, and acknowledge what you heard, major shifts can happen.   Also, in the first part of the call, good listening achieves rapport which means that they know that in the second half of the call, they can trust me with their most treasured secrets, the ones they hold very close to their heart.

How many of us are really heard?   I know that in my own family, the constant deafening cacophony means that no-one listens to anyone – ever, and perhaps it is this which nudged me into becoming a listener? When my Mother was dying, I knew that giving her a damned good listening to was the best and most loving service I could perform for her. Yes, she had practical needs too, but she lived on her own, she missed my Dad, she was (like me) a Chatterbox, and she had no outlet for it. Sadly, what she wanted to talk about was the territory of those OAPs imprisoned at home – daytime TV and the popular press – so this listening wasn’t a breeze, especially when you factor in the out-dated and non-PC beliefs of someone born between the wars. And the daughter in me wanted her to ask about me, to listen to me. But this wasn’t my time. This was time to offer up a selfless act.

And guess what happens when you do that? You discover that there’s pleasure in that duty. Why? Because it’s relaxing to single-task and to actively listen. Nothing, nothing, nothing is expected of you except to listen. You don’t have to make decisions. You just have to give your full attention to another human being with all your senses a-twitch so nuances are not lost on you, no detail missed, as there’s always the potential for the most important bits to be lost in your momentary lapse.

People communicate in so many subtle ways and often the most important things they want you to know can be dressed up in what might appear to be throwaway lines.   Listen with all your heart and soul and these tricks won’t get past you.   There’s also honour in that another human being trusts you with their innermost thoughts and feelings, and you can grow in appreciation and love for them, even if you don’t agree with them.  Especially if you don’t agree with them. Try that one on for size!

All it requires is focus and love. But we can all do this. Give it a go, let me know how you get on and discover how relaxing it can be in your private life and how empowering in your professional life. How much can you learn about yourself and your listening partners in surrendering to the listening?   Perhaps set up a listening swap? What luxury for each participant!   Sometimes clients say to me “are you there?” so intense is my listening. And I say “Yes, I’m just listening to you.” It’s often that unfamiliar to clients and I learn that they need me to make uh huh noises. Sometimes they are so intriguing that I go completely silent.

Here’s a photo of me and my nameless listener on Skyros. As you can see, he took his duties beyond just listening and into the realms of keeping the sun off my back too. I wonder where he is now and who he’s listening to?   I bet he hasn’t forgotten the gift we both received on Skyros. The gift of Listening.


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13 Responses to “The Gift of Listening”

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  1. Judith Morgan says:

    Give and take. Lucky you. Well deserved, no doubt. And how generous and fair-minded of you to share when this happened. x

  2. Allison says:

    OK, I feel honour bound to write another comment. Have just spent the weekend with my Mum and guess what, she did all the listening! Needed to offload a bit as I was feeling some pressure around the whole ‘living with someone else’s teenagers’ thing. I blabbed on for hours and felt soooooooo much better afterwards. Then I remembered what I’d written here the other day and felt a bit guilty.
    So thanks Mum

  3. Anne says:

    Hi Judith, another wonderful post full of humour and humanity. Like Nicola I really look forward to them every day 🙂 A couple of comments on the whole listening thing..I do agree being listened to completely without comment and with full attention is an incredibly powerful thing. However I do think that those of us who are considered good listeners should also make sure we get listened to…even if that’s just listening to and heeding ourselves..
    And he could put an umbrella over me any time LOL

  4. Judith Morgan says:

    You and Allison are quite a pair! I did say I think that I was delighted when I was picked as his listening partner?


  5. Judith Morgan says:

    I’m pleased re your family, Amanda. I have asked mine and got nowhere yet but I think it remains a worthy goal.

  6. Judith Morgan says:

    Allison, no flies on you are there? It’s true, it was easy to gaze at him, yes.

    Re your Mum, talk Jeremy Kyle and celebrity gossip to me. I think they become their friends don’t you, as their lives shrink? How will we stop it happening to us or is it inevitable?

    Re encouraging the world to become better listeners, I’m with you. Two ears, one mouth and all that. Wonder how we could partner up on this?


  7. Allison says:

    Fab Judith, and at the risk of straying into inappropriate territory, I imagine your companion was quite easy to listen to, given the attractive view you had!
    My Mum isn’t dying, but yes I’ve found the best way for me to serve her at this time of her life is to listen. Even if it means a heavy diet of Jeremy Kyle and celebrity gossip. Once I gave in to the inevitability of that, life has become much easier for us both. I don’t have to agree with what she says, just listen.
    As an ‘extreme listener’ by trade (aka Clean Language coach) I see the benefit of listening intently to my clients every day and my mission in life is to get them to learn to listen better to their teams and themselves, thereby increasing productivity and better leadership all round.
    Here’s to spreading the listening word!

  8. Nicola Cairncross says:

    Lovely post – really looking forward to them every morning now (no pressure lol). Judging by the size of the side of his budgie-smugglers it must have been quite a challenge but gazing at his noble profile must have helped!

  9. Amanda Thomas says:

    Lovely post Judith. You’re right people say things often without saying it. The quieter moments – and has got me thinking about how we conduct things in our family. Thank you

  10. Judith Morgan says:

    I think he’s being a gent, Mal, and trying not to look at my E-NOR-MOUSE arse!

  11. Marion Ryan says:

    He not only appears to be keeping the sun off your back but also looking out for sharks. Or listening for them. Thanks for the reminder that listening is so simple to give yet often a rare luxury for others, (especially our kids?).

  12. Jan says:

    Thanks Judith. This took me back to an event where we did an exercise where you paired up and listened to the other with ‘nothing on your mind’. It was incredibly powerful and I still use it whenever I can. I love the way your posts always make me go deeper within.

  13. Lovely post Judith, I was listening to your voice all the way through. It made me think about how I listen to my daughters. I could do better there – thank you