A few years ago I met Jo Berry, whose father, a British Member of Parliament, had been one of the five people murdered by an IRA bomb in Brighton in 1984. Jo had vowed that she would seek to understand why her father died and in response find a way of bringing good to the world. Patrick Magee who planted that bomb was caught, imprisoned and then released 14 years later as part of the IRA peace agreement. Through contacts in Ireland, Jo arranged to meet Pat. She thanked him for coming and asked him to explain all that had led to his decision to plant the bomb. Three hours later, Pat commented he had never felt so listened to and that he had been disarmed by Jo’s empathy. Jo realised that if she had had Pat’s life and influences she could not be sure she would not have acted as he did. Pat and Jo were not just listening to each others words during their encounter, they found themselves connecting at a deep level and appreciating their shared humanity despite the extraordinary set of circumstances that had brought them into one another’s lives.
Before I became a coach I had been on management courses where we did so called active listening exercises i.e. techniques to look interested, make ‘Aha’ type noises now and again, and take what someone had said and put it in our own words to, allegedly, show we had been listening and understood. I had always found this a little odd, wondering how mimicking the signs of listening could be any better than actually just – listening.
But I began to understand a more powerful approach that some call ‘deep listening’ when I was being coached a few years ago. I was extremely distressed and confused in a challenging situation at the charity I was then part of when a colleague’s unethical behaviour caused a great deal of difficulty. Having had my suspicions for a while I felt guilty for not having spoken up sooner and very angry about the negative impact of her actions on our clients. My coach was empathetic and calm, and instead of making judgements or suggestions about what to do, gently pointed me in the direction of a calmer, clearer state of mind. I felt heard, held, respected and cared for. I began to notice during our conversation I could judge myself less and that there were a few simple practical steps I could take. Without my coach saying much at all he seemed to tune out the self recrimination I was expressing and instead tune into and trust the common sense and capacity I had underneath. Because he focused on the real me behind the noise in my head, I felt as if he was leading me back into calmer waters. It seemed rather magical at the time, not least because he had actually said surprisingly little.
When I first started coaching myself, although I would listen intently, my mind was often busy with analysing what was being said and thinking of solutions. If people rambled on a bit, I would be waiting for a pause where I could jump in with my ready made incisive coaching question. However, what I have now understood is that no-one needs my clever-dick ideas. Everyone knows for themselves what to do when their stormy thinking quietens down and they return to their natural clarity. In a settled down state we are much more likely to have a new, insightful thought about whatever (if anything) we need to do next.
So how do you listen to people so they come to see what is right for them? No matter how stressed or upset someone is in the moment, underneath they do have resilience and well-being which means they can potentially see beyond their temporary uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and have a fresh idea. All we need to do is listen with nothing on our minds, with no particular thought of replying, knowing that ultimately they are fine. If we do not need to think about how we are feeling, or how we might respond frees us up to be simply present and hear beyond the words and to sense all of who they are.
The key thing is that in this gentle, neutral state, we naturally find ourselves in a deeper connection with one another and with the source of our inner wisdom. Questions or observations may occur to us, which will be pointing people towards their own clarity and peace of mind. And what people see or feel will be up to them and the new thoughts that occur to them. It’s no longer our job to fix anything.
Although I learnt about deep listening in the context of coaching, it applies everywhere, including when we are having so called ‘difficult’ conversations. The insight I have had about this is that there is no such thing as a difficult conversation, there is just not listening deeply enough. Of course I am human, and I can feel a momentary unease or defensiveness if someone is upset or angry with me. But the sooner I can relax into a neutral space and see their humanity, the better I hear and connect with what lies behind the words. From that place of trust and empathy, if it is still appropriate, I can present my point of view in a way that is more likely to be heard because we will have established a better connection.
And that is the work that Jo Berry and Pat Magee have been doing together since they met 16 years ago. They work at the grass roots level in places like Northern Ireland and Palestine that have recently experienced conflict. They tell their own story to help people from opposite sides see the humanity in one another and hence begin to heal the wounds that have separated them. I don’t think it is too bold to say that deep listening is a route to lasting peace and reconciliation.