“Keep talking, I’m listening.” How many times do we hear this from people who think they are competent at multitasking? I say “think” because your brain can only pay attention to one thing at a time. You might be good at jumping back and forth from listening to doing something else but listening is not the same as being emotionally present.
Paying attention with your eyes and ears is a hollow act. The emotions you feel while you are focusing on someone gives texture to the interaction. Whether you are formally coaching or interacting with a friend or family member, being present with caring curiosity gives them feelings of safety, belonging, and dignity.
You don’t have to try to pay attention; it shouldn’t take effort. You ease into being with someone, honoring their words, expressions, and experiences.
Move from “I” attention to “We”
To create the sense that we are in space together requires you move from an “I” state where you are sorting and judging what someone is telling you, to a “We” space where you are seeking to fully understand ̶ without judgment ̶ the perspective and reactions of the person you are with.
When in your “I” space, you have emotional reactions to what the person is expressing, which prompts a private inner dialogue. You disconnect with the person. Your reactions and words reflect your assessment.
When you move to a “We” space, you are curious about the meaning and opinions of the person you are with. You may react to what they say, but you quickly breath and release tension caused by judgment and return to being compassionately curious. You can then cleanly ask them to tell you what key words mean to them, and then summarize what you hear are their desires and doubts.
All of this is happening amidst the distractions of life, including the intrusion of your electronics, the weather outside your window, the movement of others around you, and your own straying thoughts that creep in. When you remember that you care about the human seeking guidance on their journey, you can breathe and relax into being with the person no matter what is swirling around you.
Attention without intention lacks texture
To easily explore possibilities, people need to feel safe enough to be themselves with you. This won’t happen if your intention is to fix or improve the person, push them toward a goal they don’t own, or have them “see the light” based on what you think is right for them. They need to feel you are there for them, not you. They need to sense that you care and believe in them as you help them clear their fog of fear, doubt, and confusion. Your belief in their potential gives them the courage to move forward.
Consider your intention before you speak. Release any fear, disappointment, or frustration with the person and the events of the day. Notice your breathing. Set your positive emotional intention knowing your presence can facilitate their growth.
How to listen as “We”
- Enter the conversation with care for the person and trust the interaction will facilitate growth for both of you. Philosopher Simon Weil said, “Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated…waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive.” It’s not enough to give eye contact; they need to feel you are there with them, that you care, want the best for them, and believe in them even more than they believe in themselves. Then, stay open to what will emerge from the interaction.
- Accept their emotions as a normal human reactions. Release your tension and judgment when people get emotional. Exhale your own fear or frustration. See the person in front of you as capable of growing with some reflection. As they process their experience, feelings may emerge. Staying calm and silently holding a safe, caring space knowing that emotions are energy moving through the body that may lead to positive results if the person feels safe to express and explore with you.
- Ask what outcome they would like to have instead of what they have now. If what they want is even somewhat achievable, explore what is in their control to overcome the barriers to moving forward. Ask what they can see is possible beyond their limitations and fears. Explore what the first step would look like. End the conversation by asking how they want their story to end, with no regrets, and what they are willing to do now or in the future to make this happen.
- Listen for key words, such as fear, want, and should, and ask what these words mean to them. Explore the reality of what they fear and what else is possible. Share when you hear their aspirations and passions. Help them see if the shoulds from others, from society, or from their past experiences are keeping them from claiming their desires. Don’t judge their choices or push them to change; just share what you hear and receive their responses knowing they will continue to think about the conversation after you are complete.
- Hold the person in positive regard throughout the conversation. An open conversation requires mutual respect. They will not hear you if you “know better.” Even if you disagree with their perspective, honor their perspective, knowing they are doing their best to survive and succeed with what they know. Hopefully, you can help them realize what else they can know.
You don’t need to know what to say; being compassionately curious while you receive and sharing what you hear may be enough. As I wrote in my book, The Discomfort Zone, “They want you to be present more than they need you to be perfect.”