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.