Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Listen like you mean it

© Maggie Sawkins 2017 My word art on Etsy.
True listening is effortful. It requires that we put aside our own agenda, any internal commentary or ‘busy-head’ obsessions of the moment and pay quality attention. Even if only bite-size, say for three minutes of quality listening, you will be giving what we all crave: someone else’s undivided attention. 

Over 20+ years, I’ve sat on many dozens of occasions in all sorts of rooms, with two or more people who've ended up there due to an inability or lack of willingness to talk, or more fundamentally to listen, and hear what the other has to say. 

It may sound simple, but it is not easy. When we are struggling, we don't want to hear the other's point of view. We like what we think and we don't want to encounter things that go against what we think. We avoid it with a fear of ‘what might happen?’ or ‘making it worse’. But eventually, getting the chance to speak without interruption and be fully understood, helps a person begin to process their conflict.  

In mediation it slows down a difficult conversation. When we are able to listen - and truly hear another - we have a chance to begin to understand, resolve our differences and find a way forward.

And above all it takes courage to be willing to listen. Not interpret, or ‘here’s my version of what you said’, not counsel with advice or detective-style evidence gathering, but truly hear and register what is true for the other. We can all do this: be like a mirror; reflect back what we actually heard, check we have understood someone else’s reality. 

After all, as Thomas Gordon outlines, there are many, many potential blocks to listening. There’ll be facts we’re assuming or ‘mind-reading’, let alone the numerous distractions we suffer if our own needs are going unmet. And much depends on the context, the content, and any misfiring expectations that there may be. No wonder we find it so difficult: its amazing any of us get on at all! 

On the train home after teaching a course on ‘Listening & Responding',(!) for charity volunteers, I was distracted by the two people in the next set of seats. I registered the woman manager saying the same thing intensely, a couple of times: it started to bug me. Long day with a very early start and patience had run out clearly. 

It transpired that her colleague had missed an action that severely affected her workload. ‘Its not a big deal…’(it obviously was) 'but it means I’m really going to be under pressure…’ He kept reiterating how they’d manage, but she continued to repeat the issue over and over and over, all the way from Cambridge to London and yet again as they left the train. 

At first in my post-course tiredness I was irritated, but then ‘woke up’, bless me: its because she hasn't yet felt heard by him. Had her colleague not brushed away her complaints with the 'fix' but REALLY acknowledged the effect of his actions, heard her frustration and showed understanding, she may have then been able to register and let it go: she might not have repeated a virtually identical sentence, a dozen times. 

I know for myself that I can give my best listening when wearing my professional mediation or coaching hats, and then fall off the active listening wagon miserably with a friend or family member. It is so dependent on fielding any of the obstacles above; and sometimes history really does get in the way. I’m learning all the time and awareness is key. If I know I might get a button pushed, and if I remember, I can do my imperfect best to prepare for that. 

The thing I really love about the art of listening without prejudice, it that it truly simplifies life. All we need to do, is to utterly, impeccably, pay attention. And when we do, it will still be imperfect. But a willingness to really be still, in body and mind and hear what the other person is saying, is all. To rein attention back from all obvious distractions and invite them to ‘So, tell me…’.
Being heard. Feeling understood. A sense of acceptance maybe, relief. We don't need to pay for it, we can ask for it. And it works. I have several relationships where we exchange this sort of listening, as and when. We might summarise with only the ‘headlines’ instead of reflect all we heard, but that works too. 

I know from being heard: getting that inner gut release or 'aaahhh' and having heard hundreds of others, that giving this attention in and of itself is a genuine and rare gift that can make the world of difference.  

'Be a good listener. Your ears will never get you in trouble.' Frank Tyger


Tuesday, 28 February 2017

How do I do it, this thing?

How? Start with the end in mind. This advice has served me well. It worked with students working towards exams, and these days on workshops where participants will achieve speaking without notes for example, and always I'm re-learning it for myself. 

Work in progress © Maggie Sawkins 2017
My word art on Etsy
I know the exercise is a good one for life. Way back, when I started on this path, it was because I felt so odd and unhappy in my own skin. I was introduced to the idea of creating the obituary you'd like others to write about you. So it pushed the questions; what is my life for? Or what truly matters to me? And more recently after lots of procrastination, I finally made a will and thought about the bequests I might want to make and funeral plans that would reflect my preferences. 

Sometimes when I sit still for long enough with no agenda and off the wheel of a ‘busy’ life, it all makes perfect sense to start with the end in mind. 

As readers of this blog will know there's been much reflection as I look through the papers of thirty years of work. I have not always felt in charge of the direction taken. Sometimes I found myself in situations that seemed like a ‘good idea’ but later felt very stifling. I have felt heartbroken from all the effort. There'd be a burnout or a break-down of sorts. Then there are relationships that set out with promise (even love and marriage) but turn out to be far from functional. Some choices I've made have not been so clever. I’ve often put huge amounts of effort in the not-quite-right direction.

I am on the bridge of a ship where I can't see ahead at all well - there is a lot of fog - but I know that degree at a time, the ship is being turned around to point more and more accurately on a course that fits. This has taken willingness to resign from 'figuring it out'. A life is not a problem to be solved. My brain hasn’t got the answers anyway (lord knows I’ve spent huge amounts of time and money trying to find them…) And it definitely won’t have the answers under pressure. This is the time to walk in the park, sit or smell the roses. Creativity is about having the time to have the ideas. 

So whilst this ship is turning, I continue to put my thoughts down here, plan a possible book and focus on the bigger message. I would like to end my life having more money than I need, so that I could give lots to meaningful projects that make a difference to lots of lives.
In my ideal world litter would be no more, art would be everywhere and planning committees would have artistic sensibilities. The Ministry of Kindness would have convinced politicians to re-build the NHS in its original image where there is care enough for all. Care would involve people of all ages supporting each other.

We would once again see food waste as a crime and ensure food gets eaten not thrown away. Young men trapped in gang life, would have received the esteem they seek in new ways of changing their locale by entrepreneurship. Someone would have invented chewing gum that no longer sticks to the street but by now, people wouldn't be spitting any longer. This weekend past I'm grateful for inspiring and wonderful ideas from diverse speakers TEDxEastEnd to help me keep the faith. 

Meanwhile my course is set on helping others get heard: to find courage to speak when they thought it was impossible. To resolve matters where they are in dispute, to listen like it matters. And all of us to realise that we are all ‘good enough’ and don't need to change in order to be ‘better’. I really don't know how to achieve many things that I would like to. But I know that thrashing my fragile ego over the coals definitely does not work. I will continue to start with the end in mind, work my way back and see what today, is the right next small step. x

Friday, 13 January 2017

The courage required

Do nothing for 15 minutes: nothing. Not listening, not reading, not thinking. Just sit. 

© Maggie Sawkins, 2016
All rights reserved
This is step one of The Joy Diet by Martha Beck. I loved her North Star book but this one gave me the gem of sitting and doing nothing; notice what you notice. Feel the feelings. Have the thoughts and look around and just be. 

How much does our culture suggest this? Not much. It's growing now, this awareness that mindful anything is better that automatic pilot. How many of us are still running on adrenaline, habit or expectation? 

Thank goodness, the crisis in the neglect of mental health services here in the UK, may help nudge our growing awareness: how do we neglect our own mental health? 

In my case, I took on the pressures until they squeezed the life out of me. I did so much from duty; I learnt to de-press. And to repress and restrain any instinct and desire towards self expression. I learnt to do the right thing, do what was expected, keep up with the programme. Yes, I did lovely stuff along the way - but the altered self was still mostly running the show. The paradox of doing too much.

Turning this ship around is a delicate, one-degree-at-a-time process, not a sudden overnight success. Even the notion of having preferences, discernment or goals for my life has been SO uncomfortable. Don't ask me what I want, I don't know! 

I know what I think I should want, or what makes me feel safe. Having big dreams and goals is distinctly uncomfortable. But somehow, the process is bringing me towards and into my true self. I am beginning to have a simpler life, a business that brings me more income doing things I love. I'm making a difference doing what I'm good at

The paradox is that any of this will not be changed by frantic or urgent activity. That is how I used to do it and look where that got me. Now I follow courage to do less, and sometimes, nothing. To know that today is all there is; that waiting is also an action. 

When I hear of a vibrant 30-something, dying suddenly of a brain haemorrhage at her desk, it wakes me up again. My job is to enjoy my life: TODAY. I do know that I feel better when I slow down. Or under-schedule. Or plan a lovely treat that is close to my heart.

I’m heading out to join the other freelance laptops in the cafe on the green, when "Hah! I haven't meditated today." (I’m a very imperfect meditator.) So I allow myself 5 minutes of meditation. Then another stretch; I can follow my own advice, and find the courage to just look at the trees for another wee while before starting work.

As they say, 'don't just do something, sit there!'. This moment is all we have - the birds just twittered to remind me. x