A few days ago I received the gift of generous listening from a friend and colleague. It changed my perspective and lifted me out of the winter blues. She listened to my concerns without judging or trying to fix anything. She acknowledged me in a way that left me feeling valued and believing that my contributions make a difference. Our conversation reminded me that generous listening can change lives.
Generous listening is more than a skill, and it is much more than hearing what someone is saying. It is a way of being when you are interacting with others. Generous listening starts from a place of fully valuing people and a commitment to understand what is important to them. Generous listening can transform relationships at work, in families or in interactions anywhere. When we are the listeners, our lives our enriched, because it allows us to be fully value the people around us.
Creating a Generous Frame of Mind
Generous listening is easiest with the people we get along with and most difficult when there is tension in the relationship. If there are thoughts and feelings that get in the way of generous listening with others, start by acknowledging those and letting go of them. Acknowledge and focus on what you value about them and what is possible. Listen and engage with them from that perspective.
For example, one Executive Director was discouraged because he believed that his board members were being unsupportive of staff when they questioned some of his recommendations. From this, he formed a judgment that the board members were unsupportive and uncaring. When he let go of this judgment and recognized the board members’ need to contribute, it allowed him to come from a place of generosity in his interactions with them. He could then “hear” the positive intention behind their questions and concerns and see them as coming from a supportive place.
Guidelines for Generous Listening
- Be present. Let go of the “to do” list and other distractions. Turn down the volume on the voice inside your head and be fully present with the person or people you are interacting with. If you are like me, you may have a habit of multi-tasking or side conversations in your head when engaging with others. If we learn to value being present with others as much as we value “getting things done”, we can then be more intentional and learn to be present.
- Let go of fixing, judging and defending. Don’t assume that people want advice or that there is anything to be fixed. If they are sharing something that is challenging to them, resist the temptation to jump in to problem-solve. If you notice yourself making judgments, recognize them and let go of them. And, if you become defensive, take a deep breath and listen to what is being communicated. We are conditioned to be caretakers, problem-solvers and to defend ourselves. It takes a conscious effort to let go of these patterns.
- Listen with full attention and interest. Focus on understanding the thoughts, concerns, needs and experiences that are being expressed. Let the speaker tell their entire story or complete their thought without interjecting your own. Give the speaker the gift of being fully heard. If appropriate, reflect back what you hear, so that they know that they are heard.
- Listen deeply. Listen for the underlying feelings and needs and acknowledge them. Are there feelings that haven’t been acknowledged or expressed? Is there a need that is being met or not being met? For example, tensions between staff members often come from unmet needs to feel valued and respected. Feelings of joy often come when needs for contribution and community are met. Listening with empathy is listening to these feelings and needs and allows for deeper understanding and connection.
- Listen for possibility and opportunity. Generous listening allows us to become present to possibilities and opportunities that we may not have otherwise seen. For example, a supervisor shared frustrations in working with a staff member who was not meeting her expectations. She recognized her own feelings of inadequacy as a supervisor. Through conversation, she began to see possibilities for transforming her view of herself as a leader with something valuable to contribute and her view of the staff member as someone who was open to learning. Her view of the situation also shifted to one of possibility.
In conclusion, generous listening can transform how we view the people around us and how we see our lives. It can open up possibility that we didn’t see. It can create workplace relationships where people are truly heard, understood and valued. Today, I am starting an experiment to practice generous listening with as many people as possible. I encourage you to do the same and welcome your stories about what happens!