If you have spent hours thinking or talking about a conversation that did not go well. This article is for you.
Ten years ago I was really struggling with my teen daughter and I had no idea why. I was a trained listener and yet nothing I seemed to do or say helped. We would end up at the same point, both frustrated and feeling misunderstood. My daughter would invariably get angry and whilst I would do my best not to show it I would be devastated.
It took a lot of trial and error to find what worked for us but eventually we were able to have some really honest and helpful conversations.
When I saw this quote by my friend Emma Jenkings, it summed up what had been missing for me back then.
“Peacekeepers don’t avoid conflict they work through it with honest and kind dialogue”
I had been listening but I had not been honest with her or myself. I was trying to say and do the right thing at the expense of my health and happiness which left me under resourced to support her.
She would talk and I would do my best to listen but eventually we would end up at the same place. No matter how long I listened or what kind of response I gave she did not feel heard and understood.
You only listen when you are paid
During one of the many frustrated and heated conversations where I did my best to keep my thoughts to myself my daughter said ‘You only listen when you are paid’.
Whilst I did not agree that it was the ‘only’ time I listened I did recognise that listening at work was easier and I felt it was better.
That gave me an idea.
If I was able to listen at work, I could model what I did there and identify what was different and transfer it to our conversations.
I started to reflect on what were the core skills and why was it so much harder at home.
Comfortable with uncomfortable long enough for change to happen
When I trained as a clean language facilitator, I had to learn to be comfortable with uncomfortable and how to hold back my thoughts and feelings. When someone is angry or upset, my job is to bear witness and listen, so that they can understand, not for me to fix or provide a solution. And of course when I am listening to my clients express their anger or their sadness I don’t feel any guilt or responsibility. It is not me that is causing it. But as a parent I did sometimes find my mind wandering and wondering what I did wrong or could have done better.
When I was listening to my daughter I was often unsure if I was suppose to be listening to provide a solution or ‘just listening’ both my daughter and I seemed to assume I would know. All I wanted in the moment was for her to be happy, to be able to take away her pain, her anger and her frustration. But the more I tried the more frustrated she became. If I said nothing I did not care if I did say something I wasn’t listening properly.
But I knew it could be different because I was witnessing it every day with my clients.
Listening is not a passive activity
It is easy to blurt out your thoughts without any consideration of the impact. It takes time, energy and commitment to listen to everything you hear and see and carefully select what you will reflect back and what questions you will ask.
And sometimes when we are listening we hear things that evoke memories for us or make us think about our own lives. Whilst I am trained not to express or show them in the moment that doesn’t mean I am not having those experiences. I have learned to park them and set them aside trusting that if it is important it will still be there later.
As a professional listener I also have someone to talk to. My coach or my supervisor are there to help me make sense of what I heard and why my system had reacted to it. My sessions allow me time to separate what my client needs from me next session from what I need from myself.
No one to talk to.
But at home I did not have anyone to talk to apart from husband and he was too close and part of the problem, as was I. He usually took my side and was frustrated with my daughter whereas I needed someone like me that would step back and look at the bigger picture. So one of the things I did first was hire a coach and get my team to take me through my programmes. So that I had someone I could talk to about what ‘I’ needed and about both work and home.
As I modelled what was happening when I was listening at my best at work, one of the things I identified is that I had a contract with my clients to listen for a set period of time whereas my daughter would start talking and I never knew how long for. It was often late at night and it had been going on for months.
I was often exhausted.
Whilst I wanted to listen, my tolerance would wane. If I asked to take a break she would assume I was bored or not interested, making her even more angry and upset.
When I explained to her, I had taken on board what she said about only listening when paid, I was able to explain what I needed to listen at my best and why I was better at listening at work.
90 minute timer
The first thing we changed was that we set a time for 90 minutes. That meant that I was able to take a break and so could she but there was no inference that it was because I was bored or not interested or disagreeing with what she was saying at the time.
This really worked for us and still does today. Although now we don’t need a timer, there is just an understanding that if we have talked for a long time then we will need to take a break.
I also identified that I knew why my clients were talking to me. They wanted something to change. Whereas what I soon learned is that my daughter did not want a coach. She did not want to and/or was not able to set a goal and work towards it. She was terrified, lost and scared with all the change and what she needed was a different kind of listening. She did not need me to fix or find solutions, she needed me to simply be her compassionate companion and understand how she was feeling. We agreed that she would let me know if she wanted suggestions, questions or just to vent and that meant I knew what to pay attention to and how to best respond.
It wasn’t personal
Another important differential is that my clients were rarely complaining about me. So it was not personal. So we agreed that if she was going to complain about me, that she had to be willing to answer questions, provide evidence and be willing to listen to my perspective.
I also found it useful to tap into the ‘it’s not personal’ mindset and to assume that whilst she was talking about me I was most likely representing lots of different situations and people that were frustrating her right now but I was the only person she was really talking to.
Learning to pay attention to all the different aspects of being a Clean Language facilitator and learning how to apply the principles had a profound affect and enabled us to go on to have some really honest and helpful conversations. But before that could happen I had to have absolute clarity of what I wanted for me, for her and our relationship. As a facilitator my only outcome is for my clients to get clarity and understanding of themselves and their desired outcome.
Whereas with my daughter I had to learn to recognise that I wanted things for her, that maybe she did not want for herself.
hat we both wanted was for her to be happy.
The skill of listening to others and myself has transformed so many of my relationships including the one I have with myself.
Manage your critic – from overwhelm to clarity in 7 steps
I talk about my journey and the struggles I had with my teen daughter ten years ago, in my first book ‘Manage your critic- From overwhelm to clarity in 7 steps’
I talk about how learning to listen gave me and her a process to transform our overwhelm into clarity and confidence to have those honest and helpful conversations. At the time of writing this post we are celebrating her 27th birthday and I am also celebrating our wonderful relationship and our ability to talk through and listen to each other even when we are upset or angry.
If you would like to know more about the process you can get a signed copy of my book here: ‘Manage your critic- From overwhelm to clarity in 7 steps’
I would love to know if anyone else finds it easier to listen at work than at home?
And what are your strategies for honest and helpful conversations?
Everyone deserves to feel heard and understood and yet no-one really trains us how to listen.
In the age of information as more people find their voice it is even more important now, than any other time in history that you know how to listen to yourself and others in the sea of noise.