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Clean and Crafty Listening

Introductory Articles

By Michael Mallows, May 2007

Most people’s listening skills, if they listen at all, are very poor indeed! Many, not least many in the so-called listening or helping professions, who might be described by others as, and would consider themselves good listeners, have little training in listening.

Yes, they might have read, been taught or at least been told about recapping, or reflective and active listening. They might have been given advice on body-language (maintain eye contact, nod from time to time, make little audible sounds, all to give proof that they are listening!). Perhaps they’ll have learnt how to interpret non-verbal signals: If the eyes go up, it means the person is lying, if their eyes go side to side, they are shifty-eyed i.e. evasiveness, if the head tilts down to the left, they’re looking for an angle. Legs crossed and body turned slightly sideways? They’re blocking you or avoiding intimacy. Arms folded? Defensiveness! Foot tapping? Suppressed anger and/or they’re itching to ‘leg it’!

Many people will assume that the sense they make of or the meaning they attach to what they perceive is an actual reflection of Reality, that their ‘maps’ are The Territory!  Many will be aware of concepts such as the meta-model, which I call ‘linguistic icebergs’ because it enables us to probe deeper than the superficiality of words, to peek behind the curtain, and to listen between the lines. And it conjures up a useful visual metaphor.

Some folk will have been trained and influenced by and accept the validity of NLP presuppositions such as, “The meaning of the message is the response it elicits.” Or “People have the (inner) resources they need, though they might not know how to access them.” etc. They might be clued up on Clean, and purport to be experiential constructivists, and yet, being human, we can all, from time to time, still act as if we are at the effect of others, or blame them when the communication does not go as we would wish.

For those who have no training in meaningful listening or effective questioning skills, how much greater the struggle to delve beneath the surface or to plumb the depths of other people’s internal world!

That last statement begs an unclean question or two: Effective in what way? By what criteria? For what purpose? For whose benefit? Toward what outcome?

All You Need is Love?

I think not, at least not in a washy, washy, let it all hang out, happy, hippy 60s fashion (some of which I recall with sweet nostalgia!)

By Love, I mean choosing to act, react and interact in ways that manifest in other people’s senses as patience, consideration, generosity of spirit, the benefit of the doubt, fascination, interest, integrity, and similar. We approach people with consideration for their past conditioning and respect for their future potential, even if we don’t like what they are saying and doing right now!

Crafty Listening

This simple crafty framework lists some attributes and skills that will facilitate connecting and communicating, especially when others find it difficult to communicate.

Curiosity. The best and perhaps most difficult approach is to see the world as if through the eyes of a fascinated, bright child, alert, agog, alive to the wonder of it all. Full of questions, finding new connections, forging links, focusing in on the details, pulling back to grasp the bigger picture, tuning in to the susurration of hope and the whispers on the wind.

The essence of curiosity is a sense of wonder! Skilful questioning, be it Clean, meta or some other model, can turn those whispers into an echo that helps to find harmony.

Responsiveness. This requires sensory acuity, rapport building skills and emotional intelligence. To be responsive also requires that we break free of habit and reactivity and stay in the flow of an ‘intimate distance.’ That allows us to say “Yes!” without fearing engulfment and to say “No!” without fearing abandonment or rejection.

Assertiveness. In our day to day interactions with each other, the ability to get our point across effectively is vital. Many people for a myriad reasons e.g. they lack self-confidence, or status, or positive regard from others, struggle to be heard. For some, the solution is to go into the listening professions where they can feel validated and valued because, ironically, they get listened to. This is fine – the walking wounded can lead the way, after all – unless their ‘unfinished business’ contaminates the relationship with and is detrimental to the client and to themselves. How can you tell if that is the case? Well, speaking as a supervisor, I listen for the hint of self-pity, the tone of blame, the (implied) sense of impotence that ensues from the supervisee’s Victim consciousness. Complaining, for example, that they could not stop the client’s torrent of words, not just once, or twice, but consistently.

Assertiveness results in us either directing the flow of communication or not feeling that we must be either wimp or warrior. Clean language enables all of that to happen; making choices about which element of the speaker’s words or gestures will direct their attention toward that aspect, as will questions about time “And what happened just before…?” or “And what would you like to have happen?”

Focus. What we focus on grows! When we direct attention to what is wrong with the world, we will register more of what’s wrong with the world. Focus on what’s right with the world, and we’ll find evidence of rightness everywhere, though it might be right for everyone!

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