Most of us weren’t taught how to listen. We were taught how to debate, prove our point, hold our ground or our tongues.
The problem with this behaviour is that it creates an energy of us versus them. Although great if you want to win a presidential election or create a war, it’s not so effective for making our world or workplaces inclusive and welcoming.
“When we’re not listening, we’re not using our ears to gain knowledge and information from the environment. We are feeling our way through the dark, depending on thoughts and concepts in our head,” says author Sakyong Mipham in The Lost Art of Good Conversation.
Those thoughts and concepts are formed by past experiences and skew what we hear.
Instead of responding to what was said, we often respond to a fictional story our brain created in a nanosecond. These miscommunications account for hours of unnecessary conflict in our workplaces, families and communities, leaving everyone feeling unseen and unheard.
Although outsiders are sometimes needed to help us hear more cleanly, we can also prepare ourselves to listen differently.
These three practices will keep your ears and heart open in your next brave conversation.
How often have you walked into a conversation without knowing what you want to contribute or create?
If you’re like most people, not very often.
Renowned author and spiritual teacher Gary Zukav says that every experience and every change in our experience represents an intention.
In other words — what we think about, we bring about. When we’re not aware of our intention in a conversation, unconscious thoughts can create unwanted outcomes.
Picture that person in your life. The minute they start talking, you check out or start formulating a counter-argument. You may be aware that you are frustrated or annoyed; however, you may not be aware of your underlying intention — to make this person wrong. In that frame of mind, you will only hear words that strengthen your argument and the division between you.
What if you first set an intention to understand this person’s perspective?
When you listen now, you may hear an interesting fact that you couldn’t hear before. Instead of preparing your response, you may become curious and say, “I want to understand; tell me more.”
Being genuinely curious helps the other person relax, opening the door for a different conversation.
Before your next gathering, take a moment and ask yourself: What is my intention for this dialogue? What do I want to create?
Write it on a sticky note to remind yourself. This simple act will have a profound impact on your experience.
Name the Discomfort
At a recent panel I moderated on inclusion and diversity, I began by naming feelings that may arise as colleagues shared stories of discrimination experienced in the organization such as defensiveness, anger, shame or confusion. Normalizing these emotions created space for the audience to listen, despite being uncomfortable.
Naming the discomfort requires self-awareness and empathy because we must consider what the conversation may feel like for ourselves and others.
“Rather than judgment (which exacerbates shame), empathy conveys a simple acknowledgment, ‘You are not alone,’ says Brené Brown in Daring Greatly.
This healing message dismantles protective walls and allows people to stay present.
In your next one-to-one or group conversation on an uncomfortable topic, start by naming how you feel (e.g., nervous, a bit nauseous, uncertain). Your vulnerability will carve a path for trust and honesty to emerge.
Let Go of the Outcome
I have a real thing with time: being on time, starting and ending on time, knowing how much time something is going to take. When things don’t go as planned, my whole body tenses up, and I disconnect from the people and places around me.
As a facilitator, I turned this into a superpower — your meetings will not go overtime with me at the helm!
However, what that preoccupation also did was cause alienation, especially when working with people who had a different relationship with time.
Over several painful lessons, I learned that letting go of a prespecified process and outcome led to more meaningful results. Instead of focusing on the clock, and how much time people took to speak, I stayed present to what was being said and responded to what the situation called for (saving a lot of time in the end).
We can often get attached to conversations going a certain way, especially when we’re nervous. We want others to share as deeply as we do, to agree with our well-researched opinion and to trust us because we showed up, and we want it all to happen on our own timeline. The underlying intention of these attachments is to control the situation; a natural human desire that keeps us safe.
What the pandemic may have taught you, however, is that going with the flow is much less painful than trying to control everything around you.
The same goes for brave conversations.
When you learn to appreciate that every dialogue has its own pace and to give room for each person to show up as they are, you create space for new outcomes to emerge.
More often than not, I walk into gatherings with an intention to listen, learn and relate, leaving the agenda at the door.
Take a moment to check in with your expectations before you enter into a conversation and ask yourself, What can I let go of so I can be fully present?
Ame-Lia Tamburrini is a master facilitator, podcast host of Circle of Change and CEO of Hum Consulting. Hum brings reconciliation to life through brave conversations with organizations and communities committed to being the change.