What does your to-do list look like today? Is it long, short, detailed, written down, in your head? I generally have two going at any one time – one for personal tasks (on a post-it), the other for work-related items (currently experimenting with Trello). I love lists in general, as I find they give me a sense of order and control. To-do lists, in particular, are helpful when I feel overwhelmed. I find making a structured list of the apparently million things I have to do makes me feel less dispersed, disorganised and fearful of forgetting things.
However, the list also has a dark side. Like with smartphones and social media, it can be very easy to let the tool we have created to help order our life start to order us about. To-do lists, for many people, can become a source of anxiety, guilt, frustration and overwhelm. This is often the case when the list gets too long, or when we get too attached to finishing the list, or when we feel the list is not of our own making but filled with tasks dictated by our friends, family, the boss, society, or indeed our own inner perfectionist.
Keeping the list in its rightful place – a useful tool, not a stick to beat yourself with – can be achieved, however, with a few mental adjustments and some simple re-organisation techniques. Here are some ideas for ensuring the list serves you and not the other way round!
Any re-thinking of your relationship with the to-do list must start with relinquishing the idea that the to-do list will ever be empty. One of my personal gurus, Richard Carlson, reminds readers in his bestselling Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, “that when you die, your “in basket” won’t be empty” and that this is, in fact, a good thing. Having stuff on your to-do list means you’re alive and active, that you have projects on the go, that people rely on you. Once you accept that the to-do list will never be blank, you can release the idea of having a perfect day when you finally get it all done and clear the decks. That is simply not possible, nor is it what life should be about.
Once you’ve got your head round that, there are numerous ways to restructure or reorganise your to-do list to make it feel more manageable.
Turn your to-do list into a plan
There is an old saying that coaches love which states that a goal without a plan is just a wish. The same idea can work for The List. The idea is that, wherever possible, instead of adding items to your to-do list, you open your diary and schedule in a slot for doing the task. So, for example, if you have to prepare a PowerPoint for a meeting in two weeks’ time, don’t just write it on the list. Instead, block three hour-long slots in your Outlook planner. You can now mentally take it off the to-do list as the task has been allotted time and scheduled. I do this with a page-a-day diary that serves as my to-do list notebook (yes, I’m completely analogue with these things). This avoids me having one massive to-do list that I have to prioritise every day and gives me short, daily lists so each morning I just look at what I’ve planned for myself and get on with it. When I don’t get everything done, I simply move remaining tasks to another list, depending on when I have time in my schedule. Not every task on the to-do list can be planned in this way, but by working like this for as many as I can, I find that my floating “get that done at some point” list stays very short. Some days – whisper it – I even eliminate it altogether!
Change the title
When I was interviewing for university, a literature fellow had me analyse a poem then asked the slightly sadistic question, “How would this poem be different if it were called Ten Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead?” Given that it was a love poem about Anne Boleyn by 16th-century writer Thomas Wyatt, even my jaw-achingly nervous 17-year old self was able to recognise and articulate that the title change would make a world of difference to the reader’s expectations of the text and its meaning.
Changing the title of your to-do list can have a similarly huge impact on how you relate to it. What happens when you change “To do” into “Could do”, or “Might do”? How does that alter the way you look at the list? Clients who put this into practice tell me that, even though the importance or necessity of the tasks on the list has not changed, this new title makes them feel lighter and less beholden to the tyranny of the list. The linguistic shift turns obligation into possibility.
This is a particularly powerful tool if you have a “should do” list that you run in parallel to your to-do list. That one’s particularly pernicious. A client taking a sabbatical year to retrain while her wife continues working told me recently, “I feel like I should be making dinner every night”. When she reframed that to “I could now make dinner every night”, what felt like a guilt-provoking obligation became simple one of many options. She also remembered that she actually enjoys making supper, but by “shoulding” on herself about it, she had turned it into a chore. So, another alternative is to re-name your list the “I want to” list, or the “I get to” list. This takes it a step further and turns obligation into a pleasure. This works for me when it comes to particularly tedious tasks. “Book my daughter a dentist appointment” becomes “I want to take care of my daughter’s teeth and am lucky to be able to do so”. “I have to do my tax declaration” becomes “I get to declare taxes for money made doing work I love”. It sounds slightly Pollyanna-ish, perhaps, but much of the time, it truly does help re-frame the list and my relationship to it.
Create more lists
In parallel to the to-do list, it can be helpful to create a couple of extra lists that take the load off. How would it feel to make a “Things I am going to delegate” list? Being able to delegate to your team or even your colleagues is an important skill. There is no glory in doing everything yourself, in fact it can often give staff the feeling you do not trust them, and having an overflowing inbox makes you look disorganised and incompetent. Knowing how and when to delegate crosses items off the to-do list and puts you in a position of overseeing projects and tasks. In your personal life, it is important – especially for women, I find – to let go of control, and with it responsibility, and allow other family members do their bit. Other lists might be “Tasks I need help with”, or “Tasks that will take under five minutes” (once you’ve written that, enjoy taking an hour or two to blast through them all).
In the end, how you deal with your to-do list matters much less than your relationship to it. However you choose to keep, manage and complete the to-do list, just make sure it is serving you – helping you to ensure your life runs according to your wishes – rather than the other way round.
Managing your time and tasks better starts with some deep, inner work around letting go, relinquishing control, and prioritising your real goals and deepest values. Working with a dynamic and experienced coach to rethink how you structure your personal and professional activities can help you find greater purpose and free up time to create a life and career built with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session.
“This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
So concludes Polonius’ famous soundbite-filled monologue to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In other words: know yourself and follow your own counsel. This is sage advice indeed but, like many of the character’s platitudes (such as “neither a borrower nor a lender be”), much easier said than done!
The first step towards staying true to yourself – and the one that Polonius spectacularly fails to acknowledge – is, of course, knowing yourself. Self-knowledge takes myriad forms: it’s about knowing where you come from, where you are going, what you want from life, and – crucially – the values by which you choose to live. We all value different things, and we all differ in awareness of the things we cherish and respect. Becoming more aware of our own values is the vital first step towards ensuring we honour those values on a daily basis and thus stay true to ourselves and the things in which we believe.
What are values?
Values – simply put – are the things to which we attach value. The things we would fight for, the things we pursue and celebrate. Examples of commonly held values are friendship, generosity, family, education, citizenship, honesty, self-improvement, perseverance, security. However, these values mean different things to each of us and are often best expressed in word groupings. To one person, the meaning of “citizenship” might be voting / political activism / social justice / seeking change; while another person might think of it as participating in community projects / volunteering / neighbourliness / supporting local facilities. And there’s no right answer. Your value is your value, and it means exactly what you choose it mean. The only person who really needs to know and understand it for it to have power is you.
Because awareness of our values does empower us. Knowing what you stand for can make everyday decisions easier and turn dilemmas into no-brainers. It can also increase your sense of agency in life, since – unlike inherent strengths or talents – values are something you can actively choose to espouse or eschew. It can also help you stick to your guns when your choices are questioned since you are more conscious of the foundations on which you have based your decisions.
Identifying your values
So how do we identify our values? Here’s the stuff that Polonius left out of his little father-son chat. Values can often be teased out of our strongest memories, both positive and negative. So, think of a time in your life when you felt on fire, like you were functioning at 100% and exactly where you needed to be. What are you doing, who is involved, what impact is being made? Alternatively, think of a time when you were angrier than you ever thought possible. Often, anger is a result of a strongly held value being violated in some way. For each memory, consider what’s at stake and what makes it so vivid. What is being cherished or promoted? Maybe you’re thinking of the day you got a big promotion (so perhaps you value hard work, justice or financial security?); or a time when you stood up for a kid getting bullied at school (courage, solidarity, kindness, fairness, decency, dignity?).
How values can work for you in the workplace
When you know and own your values, you gain a solid foundation on which to base your decisions. This is the kind of sense of identity that businesses often seek to create with their mission statement and lists of company core values like “excellence”, “teamwork” and “innovation”. While companies may run the risk of straying towards meaningless buzzwords and empty promises, when used well and applied properly, values offer staff and other stakeholders important guidance about what a company stands for and – wordplay alert! – the kind of value it aims to create.
Values work in much the same way on an individual level. A manager who knows what they value is more likely to be able to identify and attract like-minded team members and will more easily create a sense of team spirit. This is especially helpful when managing multicultural teams within which working methods and communication styles differ significantly. By using coaching exercises that bring staff members together around common values that they explore and develop as a group, creating a kind of team charter, I have supported managers to ease tension and promote collaboration within previously under-performing and “hard-to-handle” teams. And on an individual level – whether you are in an entry-level or C-Suite position – knowing and honouring your values in the workplace can help you set boundaries, handle conflict better, make tough choices, and create healthier relationships with colleagues.
The value of values
Whether you are seeking to be true to thine own self at home, within your family, or amongst colleagues in the workplace, knowing who you are is the unavoidable first step towards owning who you are. By taking some time to identify your values and look at how you honour them, along with how you can reinforce their presence in your life and let them serve you, you offer yourself a significant decision-making tool. You strengthen the foundation of your behaviour in every aspect of your life – as a parent, manager, friend, partner, worker and leader – and, it must follow, as the night the day, that you can indeed more easily stay true to yourself and be false to no man.
Would you like to increase your sense of self, make better choices, and boost your satisfaction, both personally and professionally? Working with a dynamic and experienced coach to explore who you are and what you stand for can help you – and your teams – find greater purpose, determination and drive – for a life and career built with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session.
Do you ever feel like your life consists of simply keeping all the plates spinning? I know I do.
On good days, I look at all the crockery I’ve got under full rotary control and smile smugly. On other days, it can feel like I’m just barely keeping the plates from crashing down like a porcelain house of cards. Like recently, when my son’s teacher emailed one Wednesday evening to inform us she would be off sick until the end of the week. I found myself cancelling three appointments for the next day then looking after my three-year-old while completing writing assignments with unmoveable deadlines by working in a tag-team shift system with my husband, and schlepping my little boy into central Paris when I went for a medical check-up I’d booked months before and was not about to push back.
I was having a moan discussion with my husband about this feeling of chasing my tail when it occurred to me that my feelings of overwhelm were in part due to the metaphor I was using and, as a result, the story I was telling myself about my life. What if I wasn’t spinning plates, in fact? What if my narrative were different?
The stuff of life
The other realisation I came to while whining talking to my husband was that harking back to simpler days when I all I had to manage was school, friends and a few hobbies was pointless. Life is no longer easy; perhaps it never was. So many of us yearn for a simpler life, by which we mean one that is pared down and stripped back to the essential. A million wellbeing magazines and articles tell us that slowing down, doing less and BEING more are the answers to all our ailments. And it’s true that during the recent lockdowns the lack of places to go and people to see was actually something of a relief to many of us. However, while I definitely felt the pressure to DO and SEE and GO ease off under lockdown, I wouldn’t want to live that way all the time. Because isn’t some degree of plate-spinning in fact the very stuff of life? I don’t mean breathless rushing, double-booking and overworked stress, but the juggling we do to ensure the kids get to school, do homework, eat well, see friends and take part in hobbies; to plan holidays, weekends away, day trips and evenings out; to engage with our work fully and carve out fulfilling careers; to see friends, take care of our health and stimulate our minds. While it often feels like all these to-do items are weighing me down, keeping me busy, and causing brain-ache, they are all activities I have chosen for myself at some point. And they are not going away (nor would I want them to), so why bemoan the spinning plates? Why not simply bin them and find a new metaphor?
The story I’m telling myself is…
In her filmed talk “The Call to Courage”, the higher being that is Brené Brown shared how she uses the phrase “The story I’m telling myself is…” to defuse arguments with her husband. She offers it up as a way of expressing one’s own interpretation of behaviour or events that might not be accurate or real but which is “the story I’m telling myself”. It occurs to me that we are constantly telling ourselves stories about our lives. And the literary devices we use – like metaphors and similes, to which I am particularly partial – are not just descriptive but prescriptive. They don’t just express what we feel, they can create it. So, each time I picture myself in a circus ring with a big red nose on frantically spinning plates, my mental image stresses me out. So what if I changed the story I’m telling myself? What if I imagine myself as a strong and sturdy oak tree holding its branches high and supporting its lush foliage with grace and ease? My chest releases and I can breathe a little easier. The tree bends in the storm, but is flexible enough not to be broken. Sometimes it drops a few leaves, but nothing catastrophic occurs, and new ones grow. Occasionally a bird lands on a bough, adding a little extra weight, but the tree knows it’s just temporary and that it can survive. If we push my metaphor to the extreme (and why wouldn’t we?), the tree also knows when it’s able to carry more leaves and when it’s the right moment to shed a few and take a break.
What a difference that image makes! Suddenly the story I’m telling myself is one of capability, strength and stability as opposed to panicking, rushing and flirting with failure. It’s about me making a choice which leaves I allow to grow on my branches, as opposed to dancing to the tune of some sadistic ringmaster. One story empowers and calms me, the other robs me of agency – and sleep. In the end, I still have the same to-do list, and I haven’t used any self-help hacks to boost my productivity, prioritise and prune my relationships, or learn to delegate. I’ve simply changed the story I’m telling myself, throwing all those plates to the ground like I’m in a touristy Green restaurant and choosing a new metaphor that works for my peace of mind, not against it.
So, what would happen if you went all “choose your own adventure” on some of the stories you’re telling yourself? How might changing the way you imagine and describe yourself and your life offer you greater control, strength, flexibility, self-respect, peace, joy and energy? What new story will you choose to tell yourself today?
If some of the stories you’re telling yourself are keeping you stuck or no longer serving you, why not take some time to work out a new narrative with an experienced and empathetic coach who can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session.
I have been known to joke that at the ripe old age of 41 I do not feel any different from when I was 21, and in some ways that is true. In others, I am happy to say, it is not: I am definitely more confident and self-possessed now, and less concerned with what others think of me. So while the changes to my physical self that result from the passing years might be somewhat unwelcome, they are a fairly small price to pay for the huge advantages of wisdom accrued and perspective gained.
Indeed, I have often thought that as we move through life, one of our aims should be to acquire as much wisdom and insight as we can, compiling our own Desiderata or, if you are also around my age and grew up in the UK, you may remember Baz Luhrmann’s Sunscreen song (“If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it”). In my years of coaching and extensive reading in the personal development genre, I feel like I have acquired more than my fair share of advice. Richard Carlson, Martin Seligman, Edith Eger, William Bridges – to name but a few – have all contributed to my understanding of the world and myself, and helped me negotiate life with greater ease, peace and grace. However, no nugget of wisdom from a book has ever been able to rival those offered by my nearest and dearest. Most often, it is their voices I hear whispering words of wisdom in times of trouble.
Recently, it is a little gem of my husband’s that has been keeping me on track: don’t listen to yourself when you’re tired. While it seems intuitive, this simple idea actually distils several important notions that can really help deal with an intrusive inner monologue and what I call “2 a.m. thoughts” – the dark thoughts that descend sometimes and make everything seem bad and wrong. Fully grasping its wisdom is key to harnessing its power!
The triple threat to good sense: Tired/Hungry/Cold
The first important point my husband has spent years reminding me is that no one thinks straight when they are tired, hungry or cold. When I’m tired, everything seems like an uphill climb and problems are insurmountable. When I’m hungry, life feels like an emergency (the real emergency being that I need to eat!). When I’m cold, I can’t focus on anything other than getting warm. This may seem blindingly obvious but it’s a circular problem – the very state that’s stopping you from thinking straight also stops you from realising that you’re not thinking straight.
When you become a parent, it is especially important to remember this as you spend most of your time tired and also a lot of time putting someone else’s needs before your own. As a result, you are usually tired, and often also hungry (I’ll eat once I get the baby down) and/or cold (kids love going to the park – even in the depths of winter!).
So, point number one is that when you are tired, hungry or cold, it is not the right time to analyse an issue, brainstorm solutions to a problem, or think through a major life decision. If I start down the road of thinking when “T/H/C”, my husband always reminds me just to set aside my thoughts for when I’m in a better place physically and – much as it pains me to say it since it seems to set a dangerous precedent – I have to admit he is right.
Listening to yourself is a choice
The second interesting thing about this advice is the notion that we have a choice about whether or not (or when) we listen to our own thoughts. We are all familiar with that little voice inside our head that maintains a non-stop monologue about everything from what we think of ourselves, others and the world around to our views on what’s being said on the news, a star’s choice of Oscar gown, or an advert on the side of a bus… It’s like a radio DJ curating our mental soundtrack. However, the difference with a DJ is that we reserve the right to turn off the radio, while we often give free rein to the voice inside our head. If we heard a load of rubbish expressed on the TV we’d mutter “Come off it!” and quickly bring up Netflix to watch something sensible and calming like Squid Game. But we have a tendency to feel obliged to listen to ourselves, even if what is being expressed is unkind, judgemental, critical, unreasonable, lacking in evidence, or quite simply untrue. When we realise that we have a choice about how much we listen to our own thoughts, it’s like we finally locate our own mental volume or off-switch. Suddenly, we can choose whether to give credence to our own thoughts or instead to turn down the volume or change the radio station entirely.
Just because you think it doesn’t mean it’s true
The obvious extension of giving ourselves the right not to listen to our own inner monologue is the realisation that our thoughts are not necessarily an accurate reflection of reality. How is it that you can go to bed feeling chirpy and wake up feeling like the world is against you? Your situation has not changed overnight, but your inner monologue and analysis of your life is radically different. Your thoughts have become negative, dragging your emotions down with them. But not every thought we think is true. Realising and internalising this is hugely liberating. When negative thoughts pop into your head, you have the option to assess them for accuracy before believing them and letting them affect your mood or behaviour.
So, in the spirit of Luhrmann’s Sunscreen: “If I could offer you only one tip for the future, it would be never listen to your own thoughts when you’re tired, hungry or cold.” And always remember that your thoughts are just thoughts, not the Gospel truth. You have a choice about whether or not to believe them – and indeed, whether to listen to them at all.
If you want support taking stock of your life and working out where to put your energy, holistic coaching with an experienced professional can help you figure out which thoughts are worth listening to and how you want the soundtrack of your life to be. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
If I read the phrase “these uncertain times” one more time, I will not be held accountable for my actions. It’s flat, hackneyed, over-used – and I’m sure I’m guilty of having written it myself. That said, it is a fairly accurate description of our current situation. While I don’t believe we live in a more dangerous, difficult or indeed uncertain age than any other, I think we have of late been suffering from a very specific kind of confusion, ambiguity and unpredictability. Can we travel? Mask or no mask? Will school be open today? Will events go ahead? Can I leave the house?
Unsurprisingly for a coach, I am usually in full resolutions mode at this time of year. I’m setting goals, defining objectives, listing behaviours to change or adopt – both for me and with my clients. However, given the aforementioned uncertainty of our times, I am finding it rather hard to get excited about planning my year. It seems futile to set too many objectives when the goalposts are changing so often, but starting a new year without any kind of momentum is anathema to me.
So, what can you do if you want to get 2022 off to a mindful start and a positive direction, but you can’t quite find it in you to set SMART goals and make a chart with shiny gold stars? For me, this year’s resolutions are going to give achievement a rest and focus instead on intention. In other words, not so much of the what (or where and when) but a bit more of the how and why.
It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it
So, what’s the difference between an objective and an intention? Well, when I take my children to school, for example, my objective is very simple: I want to get them both to the school gates on time, fully dressed and shod, and carrying all the things they need. Now I’ll just wait while all the parents reading this pick themselves up off the floor from laughing at my calling that objective simple – it is indeed anything but! But you get my point. My intention for our journey to school is more complex. As we walk, I want to enjoy a moment with the children when my attention cannot be elsewhere. I want to take the opportunity to chat with them, maybe play games like I Spy, and generally set a positive tone for our day. All too often, the achievement of my objective seems at odds with my ability to stick to my intention. But when I am on my fifth “Please go round the muddy puddles!” (curse Peppa Pig) and their hundredth “I’ve got a stone in my shoe”, holding my intention in mind helps me keep calm, retain perspective, and remember that, to me, how we get to school is almost as important as getting there at all.
Resolving with intent
Let’s apply this to topics that are often the basis for resolutions. Getting healthy, for example. The objective might be to lose a few kilos and gain some muscle. The way in which you go about doing that and the activities you put in place will differ greatly depending on your intention, which might be anything from “self-care” to “setting an example to the kids” or “moving with joy”. Your objective defines your destination, but your intention sets the tone for the trip there.
You don’t even need to associate an intention to an objective to experience the benefits of this psychological hack. What would it feel like to enter 2022 without goals and objectives but with the simple intention of, say, prioritising kindness towards yourself and other people? Your intention might be a single word: strength, joy, patience, Namaste. Or a colour. Or maybe it takes the form of an image: a tree in gusty winds that is flexible enough to bend and so is never broken, for example. Or perhaps it’s even a little abstract – like a brilliant UK advert I remember from years ago encouraging people to be more playful and enthusiastic with the slogan “Be more dog”. Just think about the flavour, tone and colour you want to experience this year and see what comes to you.
Let your intention guide you
However you express your intention, simply by setting it and holding it in your mind, you will find you have a guide to help you with choices all year long. I know Christians who ask themselves “What would Jesus do?” when facing difficult decisions. If that’s not your thing, try asking what your intention would do. Your to-do list in overloaded, a friend calls to ask for help with a work issue, and you need to pick up the kids in 30 minutes. What would “self-care” do? What would “focus” do? What would “energetic” do? Even if you don’t call on your intention for active guidance, just setting it and then letting it drift to your subconscious mind will affect your mood and choices more than you may realise.
In setting an intention for your year, you take your mind off your destination for a while and focus on how you are journeying through life. I am convinced that, given today’s circumstances, setting an intention for 2022 will go a lot further towards boosting wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment than best-laid plans and SMART goals.
Whether you want more fulfilment in your personal life, career, family, relationships or friendships, holistic support from an experienced coach can help you take effective action backed by the right intentions to keep you on track. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
It’s that time again, folks: ‘tis the season to be jolly, deck the halls, and sing the 12 days. And while it has become fashionable of late to deride the cheesiness of many Christmas traditions and bemoan its commercialisation, I have to say I love this time of year. Whether you choose to celebrate Christmas, Hanukah or the winter solstice, I have always found this to be the perfect time to wonder, reflect, and get in touch with my values. One of the things I enjoy most is the opportunity to honour the value of gift-giving.
I actually gift shop all year round. I am always on the lookout for special items that are exactly what a friend once said they really wanted or needed, or spot-on gifts that hit all the right buttons for my kids – like the glittery (tick) unicorn (tick) sewing kit (tick) Santa will be bringing my daughter this year. I do this because when I give a gift, I want it to be wanted, or needed, preferably both. I loathe the idea of buying “stocking stuffers” to make up present quantities or getting something just for the sake of it. It’s a waste of time, money and the planet’s resources!
So, in the spirit of offering necessary and appreciated gifts, I’d like to offer a suggestion for a Christmas gift we can all give our loved ones this year. The gift of listening. No, I’m not suggesting anyone gift-wrap their ears, and I’m fully aware that this one will fall flat with anyone who still believes in Father Christmas, but think what a difference it could make to our lives if we all became just 5% better at listening to each other. What a gift that would be!
Learning to listen was, quite literally, item number one on the programme for my first day of coaching training. We were taught that, as coaches, our first job was simply to listen to clients, let them be heard, and give them space to express themselves, and that even if that was all we did for the entire session, we had almost certainly always made a difference. Because how often do we get to sit and talk to someone who is just there to listen to us, without judgement, agenda or expectations of reciprocity, and without jumping in to offer advice or a comparable anecdote?
If you would like to give yourself and those around you the gift of becoming a better listener, here are a few ideas to help you make that Christmas wish come true.
- Set your intention
Active listening – the coachingese term for making a concerted effort to listen to someone – is simple in theory but surprisingly tough to do. The first step is to go into the conversation with the firm intention of listening. Simply by becoming aware that your goal is just to listen will enhance your ability to listen closely and concentrate on the other person. When you enter a conversation, make sure you’re comfortable and not likely to fidget. You cannot focus on someone’s words when you are cold, need the loo, or have a clothing label scratching your neck. Sort those things out before getting into it with your friend and you will be able to give her your undivided attention. And remember to make regular eye contact and offer listening signals such as head nodding and the occasional “uhuh” or “mmm”.
- Listen to understand, not to reply
I have a number of friends – mainly those who live far from me – with whom I have developed the habit of leaving each other long, newsy Whatsapp voice notes. This function of the app is a great way to keep up with pals who live in different time zones or who have different schedules and with whom an actual phone chat is often hard to arrange. My mate Kate, a woman of great wisdom, recently commented that she enjoys how relaxing our habit of leaving messages is: “Since it’s a message not a conversation, you can really listen, without having to think about what to say next”. How often do we listen without mentally drafting our reply or thinking about a similar thing that happened to us that we’d like to share? What would it be like simply to hear someone’s story without feeling the need to share in return? Obviously, there is a time and place for reciprocity in conversation, but the next time a friend starts to share some concern or news, why not try imagining you are listening to a message? Your only job is to hear it. If there are silent pauses, let them be; resist the urge to jump in with “Oh my God, the same thing happened to me!” or “I feel the same – when that happens to me, I always…”
- Stay curious
A coach’s second most important job is asking questions. In training we learn how to ask big “powerful” questions that can turn a client’s limiting belief on its head or make him see a situation from a new perspective. However, some of the most helpful questions (or prompts) a person can hear are often the simplest. Try Tell me more, or What else? Ask for details: What happened next? How did that make you feel? What was the impact of that? Keep your focus on the other person, rather than bringing the conversation back to your stuff, your experiences. An alternative to asking questions is offering thought-provoking observations, for example, Wow, that sounds disappointing! or I can hear so much anger in what you’re saying. By voicing what you hear and inviting a person to express more, you’re showing you are interested, that you value them, and that what they are saying is important to you in itself – not just as a springboard for your own sharing.
- Interrupt judiciously
I initially called this paragraph “never interrupt” but changed that for the sake of precision. I doubt I even have to say that the quickest way to frustrate someone who needs to talk is to interrupt them. Interruption most often takes the form of jumping in with own our story, but equally irritating variants include but are not limited to: interrupting to correct, contradict, offer information that turns into a digression, and the classic “Ah! That reminds me…!” change of subject. The bottom line is no one likes it, so don’t do it. The exceptions to this rule are things like interrupting to ensure understanding and ask for clarification.
Being a good listener is one of life’s hardest skills to learn, but the benefits are multiple. By giving the gift of your listening and attention, you show someone how highly you value them and give them a space to explore whatever situation or predicament they need to share. Plus, this is one of those gifts with a kickback. By improving your listening, you will improve the quality of your relationships as your loved ones (consciously or otherwise) respond to and appreciate your presence and openness and your connections deepen.
And, if you listen well enough and often enough, you’re sure to hear something that sparks a great idea for next year’s gift. That’s an extra win!
If you’d like to offer yourself the gift of active listening with a professional coach to work on issues holding you back, areas of life in which you are stuck, or projects that you would like to accelerate, contact me for your free introductory coaching session to start building a life lived with purpose and on purpose.