4th October 2011
Funny places you learn to listen
Picture the scene – I’m sitting in the hairdressers with one of those really ‘attractive’ black plastic capes around me with my hair primed and ready for a blow dry. I’m casually chatting away to my hairdresser about my weekend when a woman walks through the door and angrily asks to see the manager. Her face clearly says ‘I’m not happy’. The manager walks over and asks how she could help.
I watch as the two quickly descend into what looks like two lionesses fighting rather than two amazingly beautiful, intelligent women talking about a problem that, between them, they needed to resolve.
As I sit in my chair, watching everything through the mirror, I can feel my stomach lurching, my heart rate rising, my mouth becoming dry and deep pangs of sadness as I recognise an old but familiar pattern being played out right before my eyes.
The pattern – feeling unheard and unsafe; needing to defend or attack; repeating myself over and over in the hope the other will ‘get it’; voices and energy rising; and the use of more aggressive and defamatory language.
Missing ingredient = Listening
In that moment I realised what was missing. The simple ability to LISTEN!
It was clear that both women were completely unconscious they weren’t listening to each other. Instead they had been ‘taken over’ by the most basic of survival mechanisms – the ‘fight/flight/freeze response’.
Having spotted the pattern I decided to go over, introduce myself and just listen. Within minutes the energy softened, bodies relaxed and voices became quieter. The most exciting part was that they managed to listen to each other and come to a mutually agreeable resolution.
Why we need to learn to listen
As I reflect on the afternoons events I am reminded of two things:-
- Everyone wants to be listened to; and
- The power of listening
Looking back I can clearly remember being told to listen but I realise I didn’t understand firstly, what it meant to listen and secondly, why I needed to listen. In fact it wasn’t until, approaching thirty, that I began to understand just how powerful listening really is. In particular:-
You get to understand what’s really going on when you listenThe more you listen, the more chance you have of hearing what’s really going on for the person. I often find that what a person starts out saying isn’t what they really want you to hear. In the situation above, the client shouted ‘you’ve ruined my hair’ but what she really wanted the manager to hear was ‘I’m really frightened and feel completely alone in this situation. I know you told me the risks of coming in and putting colour over damaged hair but I so wanted to feel beautiful and like a woman that I chose to override your advice. I desperately need help right now. Can you help me?’ It was only by the manager listening that the client got to this level of understanding for herself. Once they got to that point, they were able, together, to find a resolution.
Resolution happens faster when you listenSo you’ve listened and understood the need. Now you have the potential to identify what needs to happen. This means you are one step closer to a resolution. Had the hairdresser and client continued to engage in an aggressive and defensive manner, not only would they have found it very difficult to reach a resolution but, any resolution would have taken hours, days and even weeks. As it was they had been ‘debating’ for at least 15 minutes before I intervened. As soon as listening was introduced it less than ten minutes to get to a resolution.
You get to a more positive resolution when you listenWhen you listen, not only do you have the opportunity to move the situation towards resolution but you get to a much more positive resolution. This is primarily because you will have heard what is really important in the situation and been able to reach a more empathic connection with the person’s experience. In the situation above by connecting with the client’s fear the manager went from offering her a product to take home to offering her an in-salon treatment as well as a cut and blow wave for free – and she gave the client the home care product!.
People feel safer and more open to a mutually beneficial resolution when they feel listened toWhen a person feels listened to they are much more likely to listen to you too. By effectively listening to her client and, by her client listening to her, the manager got her needs met too. She came to realise that what she wanted was a happy client; to offer a professional service; and to help in a way that was aligned with her personal and professional values. In the end, she managed to achieve all three.
Listening is not easy and the hairdresser situation is not an unusual one. I see people struggling with it all around me – on the streets, in my therapy room, in the board room and on television. Be it between adults, adults and children, and even amongst children.
The more I reflect on this, the more I believe that by listening to each other we could prevent wars, reduce crime, restore communities and re-establish connection - and wouldn’t that be a good thing!
(For handy tips on HOW to listen read my blog entry ‘So you think you can Listen’)
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