The first way – which accounts for the vast majority of listening – is when someone else is talking, and one’s mind drifts to thoughts that have nothing to do with the discussion, such as, ‘I wonder what’s for supper?’, ‘Looks like rain’ or ‘When can I get out of here already?’ Although many of us are skilled multitaskers, it’s simply not possible to think two different things at the same time. Even a fleeting thought is an interruption that takes away from the conversation at hand. I have sat across from people countless times who nodded and smiled at all the right moments, but who I knew weren’t really paying attention. No matter how skilled they might be at pretending to listen, I know intuitively that they’re not fully present. It’s disconcerting, and sometimes insulting. Above all, it sends the message, ‘Whatever you are talking about is not that important to me right now.’ The second way of listening is hearing what someone is saying, but only relating it to oneself. An example would be meeting a friend for a drink after work. She says, ‘I had the worst day! My boss is a nightmare. She kept me at work for twelve hours straight.’ And then replying, ‘That happened to me, too, but my boss is so much worse!’ It’s being on-topic, but off-subject, veering from ‘you’ to ‘me’. There are small, simple steps you can take to make mental health in the workplace something that people can talk about.
Understandably, we all need to express ourselves; to a degree, bringing up one’s own comparable experience is how people commiserate. But a good listener would allow her friend to vent, paying her the service of being heard and validating her feelings. She’d show empathy, as in, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that. You poor thing.’ A bad listener hijacks the conversation from her friend to do her own venting or jumps in to offer unhelpful advice, which is just another way to assert one’s own story above that of the other and bring one’s ego to the top of the list. In effect, a hijacking ‘listener’ or unsolicited advice-giver is only serving herself. Most people find huge relief in just having someone take the time to listen. If you are a manager then hr app is a subject that you will be aware of.
The third way is not listening at all, when people block out anything they don’t want to hear. It can be frustrating as a leader to try to give an employee my reaction to something, and to know that their defences have gone up, rendering them selectively deaf. None of us are in the business of wasting our breath or our time. I certainly don’t need to listen to myself talk! It’s essential to be able to open one’s ears to feedback. When I receive criticism from my staff, I aim to listen honestly and constructively to what they have to say. If people can open their minds (and quiet their egos) to the possibility that they have much to gain from receiving feedback, they will go very far and so will their business. It’s not required that people agree with the feedback they receive, but they must be open to the possibility that someone else might have thoughts worth listening to. Recent reports have discovered a crisis around mental health first aid today.
The final way of listening, which is extremely rare, is when the listener eyeballs the person she’s talking to and really pays attention to what they’re saying without allowing stray thoughts or ego to intrude. Believe me, it sounds easy, but it is so hard to do. It requires the listener to bite his lip when his own stories pop into his head, and to stay tuned in while the other person goes on. It’s worth it, though. The speaker will intuitively know the listener is present and that for a few minutes someone really heard them. I am no psychologist, but I know from personal experience that when I’ve had a problem and I’ve had the blessing of a friend or colleague who just listens, it helps so much. Whether you work with 10 people, 10000 people or just yourself, paying attention to employee wellbeing has never been more important.
When I talk about active listening, people often say, ‘That’s exactly what I do all the time.’ It’s certainly what we’d like to think we do. But blocking one’s own thoughts is not so easy. We all have our own problems, distractions and deadlines, and it can seem excruciating to slow down and take the time to focus on someone else’s. It’s like the Commandment, ‘Do unto others…’ Piece of cake, right? It’s not so easy to treat others with kindness, care and respect, all day long, every day, but, if people can manage to do it, they are serving every person they meet well. We practise active listening at every meeting or discussion. I challenge the staff to pay attention not only to whoever is speaking, but also to be conscious about how well they listen and what is preventing them from doing it with both ears open. Not only is it polite – and, as you’ve seen, we care a lot about manners but zoning out when someone is speaking blocks communication at the most basic level. It’s funny how some people like the sound of their own voice better than any other.