I want to talk about water – but not the kind you’re thinking – the water of words and the motion of listening and presence. Speech and body language are like water; they flow between us and carve our moments and connections. The practice of deep listening (listening with the primary purpose of understanding another person, as opposed to listening with your primary focus on your response) is possibly the most powerful tool for forging strong relationships. Deep listening cultivates feelings of safety and trust, essential for secure human bonds. Secure bonds are obviously what close intimate relationships are built on, but the same could be said for any situation where people need to interact, communicate, educate, learn, and perform together.
Deep listening is a skill, and takes time and attention to learn. My work as a mental performance consultant has provided me with many opportunities to learn to listen. I’ve found the metaphor of flowing water to be a very useful model in my quest to listen more deeply. The metaphor of water has taught me to pause, question, and share, ebbing and flowing with my people. Slowly, I’m following the contours, finding the speed, feeling when to press, when to yield, and when to just leave space in silence. For a long time I’ve wanted to write about communication, about interaction, about appropriate intimacy. But, what I’ve learned is more in feeling and a sense of space than in words. It can all be summarized by learning to listen like water moves.
Listen like water moves? Let me explain: like water, try to only take the space that is given to you (let the other person tell his story); follow gravity (follow subject matter that the speaker wishes to share – at least at first). Be still sometimes and move slowly others. Speak only when the feeling is right. But, like water, only run if the ground drops to allow you (if the speaker offers more or asks for feedback). Be open to what you notice. There are grasses and daisies and flowering cacti as well as a view that stops your heart. Anything can be encountered in our explorations of each other. Pay attention. Move like water, and slowly, at least to begin with.
I’ve made mistakes with people by making presumptions too quickly. I’ve greeted them with enthusiasm, jumped to quick conclusions, and hastened them along my trail. I’ve told them who I think they are, and sometimes I’ve been wrong. The belief that you can see people is a dangerous confidence. I’m learning to begin by sitting down at the beginning, where the ground is a still pool. Not everyone wants to run, and this space we’re in, it belongs to us both.
Share the space
This has been a helpful analogy for me. Water runs on a stream bed and follows gravity. Both the water and the stream bed holds its space. Share the space, and by that I mean occupy only that which is yours. When wishing to understand another that’s not very much. Thoughts and ideas come fast to me like rapids. But this venture is not about covering terrain. Beginning a conversation is like sitting down on the first rock at the trailhead and looking around. It’s a willingness to ask the landscape where to go. Here’s an example:
“I have some thoughts regarding what we could discuss today, but I want to ask you first, what’s foremost on your mind?” I asked the singer.
(I’m surprised at least fifty percent of the time by the answer to this question. I might have sworn that the river began straight ahead, but no, it’s through the opening I didn’t see to my left. Good thing I asked; we might have been lost from the get-go.)
The singer asked, “Is it ok if I use my anger about my ex-boyfriend to energize my performance?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Can you tell me more about that?”
“Well, the thought of singing badly because I’m sad about him makes me angry, so can I use that to fire myself up?”
I needed further clarification: “So the anger is a rebellion against a side of yourself? It’s a conviction to be your best regardless of the circumstances? You’re not describing anger at him?”
“Yes, that’s it. The anger is fueling a determination to be my best.”
“Go for it.” (Anger at an individual is a distraction, anger for oneself is a focus tool)
When your company is telling her story, be still and listen, like water pooling. Hear everything she has to share. As her story slows ask kind questions that might help you explore all the all the details of her story. Now you’re flowing slowly forward, but only as fast as she allows you. “Can you tell me more about that?” and, “is there anything else you want to add?” are good questions to make sure you have explored the space and to help her feel thoroughly heard. Often there will be something in what she has said that will help you know where to flow next.
For example, regarding the singer above, at one point she said of her boyfriend, “he still texts me you know.”
“How do you feel about that?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It’s kind of nice to hear from him.” She sighed. “It’s ok for now.”
“Ok, if more comes to your mind about that later feel free to bring it up.”
“Ok,” she told me. It was time to flow on.
Believe their story
When you are listening deeply to someone, believe what he tells you about how he sees the world right now, at least at first. This is his current reality. Let him deviate to the left – let him show you what his world is like. I see, down this way, even though its dark, this is the only way you know. You might object to some of the stories that this person tells about his life. You’re aware of an easier route, but the only path you can walk together right now is this one. Water cannot demand that the streambed change shape immediately. Go with him. Let him show you around. This is a very narrow channel, and you’re right it’s hard to see; I can understand why you’re scared; I’m scared too. Let me tell that back to you to make sure I’ve got it right – so we can stick together and no one gets left behind.
The practice of understanding another person’s emotional experience is called empathy. Empathy is a skill that is able to be cultivated, which is fortunate, for strong levels of empathy are a major contributor to long-lasting relationships.
Here’s an example:
“No one here likes me,” said the young man seated across from me.
“How can you tell that no one likes you?” I asked.
“Well, no one says ‘good morning’ when I arrive, and one group always have their coffee break together, but they never invite me.”
“Ah,” I grimace, “that’s hard. How do you feel when you watch them leave?”
“I just think, ‘there they go again!’ and I feel angry, honestly.”
“What kind of thoughts go through your mind when you feel angry like that?”
“Just that I’m strange, and I never fit in,” he said softly, looking down.
“I hear you,” I told him, “I’ve felt like that before too.”
Now, in all likelihood this young man’s co-workers don’t have a particular dislike for him. They probably don’t say good morning when he passes them because they’re focused on their work. They possibly don’t invite him for coffee because they don’t feel like he wants to go. His body language is withdrawn, and he rarely stops to talk with any of them. But, in order to help him in the long run, this person must feel heard. He must trust that I’ve seen through his eyes for a little while before I try to change what he sees.
Interestingly, when I’ve listened really patiently to someone who is describing a negative personal circumstance which is probably exaggerated, he often re-balances himself before I need to try. As he comes to the end of telling his story, and a few pauses are allowed between us, this young man might say, “You know they used to invite me for coffee, months ago, but I always said no. That might be why they don’t ask anymore.” This is a very helpful broadening of perspective, and an invitation to offer more support of this way of thinking.
Fall Where There’s Space
Usually, someone’s story has an ending. You’ll feel it when you get close. The person’s energy will subside. There will be longer silences before someone speaks. You’ll catch a glimpse of the cliff where the streambed tips, and the water pours faster over a ledge. Their gravity has begun to drop, and now you can follow faster. Like this:
“I hear you that you feel like no one likes you at work. That’s a tough way to feel. But you know what? Most of us humans are too busy worrying about our own lives to put any real thought into disliking a co-worker. Are you sure they don’t like you? You arrive at work later than them, right? How do you feel about initiating the morning hello?”
“I guess I could give that a try.” He looked unsure.
I continued: “people read others’ body language very quickly. If you’re feeling like your co-workers don’t like you, you might be unintentionally displaying body language that causes them to feel like you don’t like them. Interestingly, we tend to like people who like us. So, if you want to feel more liked try appearing as if you like them first.” He nodded with understanding.
Fly Above the River
Upon the conclusion of our conversation (and sometimes while we’re still together, near the end). I’ll “fly above the river” and try to view it as a whole. I do this by asking ask myself this question: “why is he telling me this story? What is he hoping I will hear? What is he hoping I will see?” When you’re in the river of listening it’s easy to get swept up in the emotions and details. Flying above the river can provide a better view when trying to understand a person. It’s taken me time to learn that some people don’t come to me to solve their problems, they come to me to have someone to speak their problems out loud to, and this enables them to solve them themselves. Here’s an example:
“You know, in the second set, I lose focus and I go to my backhand, but I know I shouldn’t do that! My forehand is way stronger. Next time I need to remember that when I’m nervous I need to stick with my forehand no matter what.”
This tennis player is visiting me for his monthly appointment. I’ve learned over time that the way I can help him the most is by just listening to him talk through his matches. I have little technical knowledge when it comes to tennis, and I’ve tried to ask questions to understand, but this just seems to frustrate him. My questions and solutions come up against him like waves against stones. After one meeting, where I’d said almost nothing and was feeling like I hadn’t helped him at all, he said: “You know Shannon, it really helps me just to talk through this stuff. I feel so much better now.” Sometimes the greatest help you can give someone is to just listen. Nothing more.
“Over time I would learn to listen for those wonderful moments when people spoke a kind of personal music, which left a rhythmic architecture of who they were. I would be much more interested in those rhythmic architectures than in the information they might or might not reveal.” ~ Anna Deveare Smith
The next time you stand before someone who wants to talk, remember to be like water. Share the space between you; follow gravity; believe her story, at least at first, then pour what you have to say when the space appears. Finally, fly above the river; ask, why is she telling me this story, and remember, often listening is enough. If you’ve listened well the next time you meet this person she will look at you differently. In fact, she will look for you. Something will have changed in her eyes. You see, few people know how to listen like water. Few want to hear everything she has to say. It’s always in the next visit – the next meeting of eyes – that you see her relief that you did.
About the Author
Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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