Listening Fully: The Hidden Motivator Karen W. Pool
“Until we are free to think for ourselves, our dreams are not free to unfold.” —Nancy Kline What motivates us to progress or change? Opportunity? Additional responsibility? Setting goals? Meaning? Incentives? In all I’ve studied, motivation is not connected with listening. Being listened to—receiving full attention and respect without criticism or interruption—is the simplest and most overlooked key to motivation. Several individuals who were listened to instead of advised in coaching sessions responded when asked about their experience: Jan related, “I discovered that my deepest insights came as a result of hearing myself think aloud.” Mary wrote, “I enjoy talking things out with someone who had no bias toward me. The knowledge and direction I now have has given me a sense of hope. I find myself thinking and acting differently—with a real sense of purpose.
” Shawn expressed this, “Being listened to helped lift my belief in myself and my thoughts, and helped me act on my ideas.” To begin to speak—and actually hear our thinking—is to transform our place in the universe. Brenda Ueland writes in Strength to Your Sword Arm, Selected Writings, “When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.
This creative fountain of our imagination inside all of us begins to spring and cast up new thoughts, unexpected laughter, and wisdom.” In her book, Time to Think, Nancy Kline observes, “Everything we do depends for its quality on the thinking we do first. The most important thing we can do is listen to people so expertly, to give them attention so respectfully they could begin to think for themselves, clearly and afresh.”
There are three basic skills to practice and request to receive full listening. These include 1) releasing personal agendas, 2) not interrupting, and 3) letting go of the assumption that people always need advice. First, if we are to listen, we must release our personal agendas in order to be quiet in our minds while someone stops to think while they are talking. Usually, as soon as the speaker thinks aloud, the listener in us moves into problem-solving mode or judgment, rather than attentive curiosity. Even if we are silent while another speaks, our “thinking wheels” churn up ideas. And when we’re invested in the outcome, we may not listen at all.
However, when we listen with our full attention, others are able to clear away the clutter and obstacles until they see clearly what they desire. Second, we choose not to interrupt. We usually interrupt because we think we’ve already figured out what a person will say. As soon as we begin looking for a pause in another person’s thinking so we can say something, we have stopped listening.
Alternatively, we create breathing room when we resist the pressure to fill the space immediately. The best conditions for thinking are unrushed. Those who experience full attention become more intelligent and imaginative.
Finally, be wary of giving advice. In our society, helping people has usually meant giving them our ideas. We unconsciously assume that the person who presents the problem is asking for our assistance because he or she doesn’t have a solution. Consequently, we listen only long enough for our brain to think of an idea. Most of us are totally unaware of the subtle insult that accompanies advice, because it seems such an appropriate response—either to request it, or to give it. Our advice usually points one way: that we know best the direction a person is to take. It implies that he or she doesn’t know and can’t figure it out. Nancy Kline suggests: “Real help consists of paying respectful attention to people so that they can access their own ideas first. First listen. And then listen some more. And just when they say they can’t think of anything else, you can ask them the question, ‘What else do you think about this? What else comes to your mind to say?’ While you wait, you may be tempted to give a little piece of advice or encouragement. Resist this; when they are done, they will say they are done.”
Practice requesting a safe listening environment: open-hearted full attention, without criticism, interruption, or advice. The following coaching participants told of their experience of receiving the gift of a safe listening environment:
Heather: “I was able to get past a stuck place because I was encouraged to think creatively for myself and felt rewarded and not devalued.” Shari: “I feel more empowered to solve my problems.” Holly: “I’ve loved having someone listen to me and support me in figuring things out. I’ve never thought to request it myself; I’m usually on the other end without anyone listening.” Lindy: “Being listened to has helped me re-evaluate things and look at them differently—to see new options and open up my perspective. The challenges at work aren’t so overwhelming.” In the same listening fashion, we can observe what works for us individually to hear the inner voice of our heart. Clarity in the form of answers and insights comes in quiet moments while listening to this inner voice. Notice when insights come, what distracts you or creates discomfort, and what brings peace. Intentionally include more activities on a regular basis that allow for listening to the ideas of your heart’s voice. Examples include meditating, being in nature, listening to quiet music, walking, doing handwork or gardening, building things, and my favorite from Brenda Ueland— moodling (long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling, and puttering). I keep 3×5 cards and sticky notes readily available, because ideas often come at the spur of the moment.
Listening to each other requires discipline and attention. What if we gave each other the gift of listening without judgment, and with respect and interest? This kind of atmosphere—where genuine, respectful listening occurs—provides space for alignment between the person and what he or she desires.
In C. William Pollard’s words, “When this happens, move over—because there will be extraordinary performance.”