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Are You Listening?

When I retired from running a market research company I needed something to fill my time. Also, after a lifetime as a workaholic, I needed to put something back into the society that had been so good to me. I decided I would like to volunteer as a Samaritan. I knew little about Samaritans except that they help those who feel suicidal. The Samaritan website told me that their volunteers are called listeners and most of their work is taking calls from anxious people who are in various stages of distress. Having spent my working life as a market researcher, I thought I was well qualified for this role. I knew how to ask questions and I knew how to find out what was going on. I was soon to learn how inept I was. I was not a good listener.

Market researchers ask questions and record answers. This is not necessarily listening. We think we know what listening is and yet we are surprisingly bad at it. No one trains us as listeners - it is something in which we develop skills in our own way and at different levels.

The person who interviewed me for my role as a Samaritan was suspicious of my capabilities. At least they gave me a chance and placed me on their training course which took three hours a week for many weeks. I was frustrated. What could there be to learn about listening that took so much time? As I settled into one of these early training sessions, I looked around at the other 15 would-be volunteers. We were a motley crew. In age we ranged from me (the oldest) to an 18 year old. We were a cross section of society. Some sported designer clothes, others displayed their designer tattoos, and others had interesting body piercings. A few, me included, had grey hair. I looked around and, with my research background, I began to classify my fellow Samaritans using judgements and undoubtedly prejudices that I have built up over the years. I failed my first test as a listener. I must suspend judgement. The more I learned about listening, the more my confidence ebbed; would I ever be able to perform the role?

The training involved a good deal of role plays. As I listened to a colleague telling their story, I found myself jumping in with questions or even starting to tell them a related story of my own. I couldn't help wanting to offer advice. I was failing on every count.

One of the hardest parts about listening is maintaining silence. Whoever is telling their story must be able to do so in their own time and in their own words. Listeners can be impatient and believe that they can help the story teller get more quickly to the point. They interrupt, they distract, and very often they judge.

It took effort and time for me to hold back from asking too many questions. I couldn’t help wanting to take control of the conversation and force it in a particular direction. It took time but I learned the importance of allowing the speaker to take the subject where they wanted to go. In doing so I learned much more and I sensed how much more comfortable it was for my caller.

After a few months of training in the classroom, we listened to seasoned Samaritans taking calls. And then it was our turn. How nervous I was. Some callers spoke so softly I could hardly hear what they were saying. Others had accents which rendered their speech a foreign language. As stories unfolded I found some so horrific and bizarre I couldn't be sure what I was hearing. These stories couldn't be told in five minutes; they often took over an hour. What is more, it was sometimes very difficult to end the conversation when it was a lifeline to the caller.

A few years have passed since I have graduated as a Samaritan listener. I am embarrassed by my failure to listen – I mean really listen – to people over the years. Even now, I find it hard but I know how important and worthwhile it is. I have learned to pay attention to what people are saying and to say very little. What I do say I hope sounds empathetic. I may provide short words of encouragement, or ask a clarifying question or reflect on what has been said. I sometimes know if I have been a good listener because the caller thanks me. For them it is therapeutic to tell their story to someone who is genuinely interested and demonstrates this by gentle encouragement.

Why am I talking about listening on this website of frameworks? It is because all frameworks require an understanding of a situation. Without this understanding it is impossible to determine an appropriate way forward. The understanding comes from listening to colleagues, customers, potential customers, competitors – indeed anyone who can influence the future of our organisation. We talk a lot about frameworks and make an assumption that whoever is using and applying them has a real listening ability that is so critical throughout the process. I conclude by sharing with you the listening wheel which has been so important to me in my role as a Samaritan and which is a good starting point for finding the right framework.

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