Why do we speak, I mean why say anything at all, what is the purpose of communication? These might sound like silly questions, it feels kinda funny sitting here typing them out on the screen. But with so many of the words coming out of my mouth unconscious and sometimes downright embarrassing it feels like a valid question. Take last night for example. I had a very near misunderstanding because the person I was speaking to didn’t hear what I was trying to say. They heard half and then assumed they knew the rest, which put them on the defensive and there our parallel railway tracks of mutual understanding as we traveled together separated. Suddenly we were speaking different languages, divided by an invisible line. It was like unknowingly crossing the border to a different country and suddenly everything looks different. It wasn’t until we were able to turn around and see exactly where our tracks diverged did we understand. No blame, just misunderstanding. We chose to use our words to heal the situation; they became our medicine as well as having been our hurt. We learnt how to listen.
I believe that the most effective way to learn a different language is to imitate the way a baby learns the language around them. Go find a baby and watch them! What do they do first? Well, I used to think that they listen first, but recently I have come to realise that before listening they are silent. Then they hear the sounds washing over them like the ocean over the beach. Then comes the realisation that some of these sounds are important. Then they begin to listen to them. Silence is an underrated element in the importance of listening, and this could be a lesson for all of us. I certainly know it’s one for me. If I am not ‘getting it’ then I need to slow down and allow the silence to settle before listening again. With practice this can happen in the space of one breath. Listen & silent are two sides on the same coin.
Silence also means something else to me in the giant sphere of what is means to listen, really listen. Being silent means having no agenda, not trying to direct the other persons words or thoughts to a specific place, not manipulating, not thinking you know the answer or what they need to do or mentally rehearsing what you’ll say when they stop talking. This inner silence is essential for listening because the other person might be telling you something you don’t know, there may also be things unspoken but expressed through the tremble around a particular word, or the fidgeting fingers or pulling of hair or perhaps in the things unsaid, the words that hang over that cavernous silence waving flags and secretly hoping someone will see them.
In listening there is no speaking. That is another skill, one that obviously is linked but I don’t want to talk too much about it today other than to say that the process of first silence, hearing, then listening are all precursors to speaking as they are about inner process, about being able to know and listen to yourself before speaking. I wanted this blog to be about primarily about listening, a skill close to my heart and totally transformational.
If you have never practised a Listening Partnership (LP) before then grab yourself a friend and a timer and some undisturbed time alone, this could be a little as ten minutes (5 minutes each) if you’re busy but longer is also good. Now you’ll take turns speaking and listening. When you listen you do so silently and without comment, you listen as if you don’t know what the person is going to say, you listen by being empty on the inside. In your heart you hold the truth that this person in front of you has everything they need to fix whatever needs fixing and let go of everything they no longer need. They do not need your advice or opinion, your complete attention is enough. You give the gift of your attention, your belief in them, your trust in their wisdom and strength. The space does everything else. When the timer goes off you thank them and swop roles. You’ll see how both roles are a gift, to listen as well as to speak.
As a doula it is very important to have finely tuned skills for listening to our clients. Our job is to listen, to provide options, information and signpost when asked. But mostly it’s to listen and let the mother / partner have the space to voice their thoughts out loud and through the speaking find their own authentic voice. By being someone they can trust, as there is no other agenda than to support them to find what is best for their unique situation. Especially if other people, or the culture around them, is doubting or questioning their decisions. A doula is in an important position to give the gift of listening. And I find that using LP’s in my personal life gives me more capacity to be able to listen to others in a professional capacity. Funny how I began this blog asking why we speak and have gone on to write about listening. Maybe next time I’ll get around to writing about why we speak. Stephen R. Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People observed that ‘most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.’ If we want to understand what is being said, more than active listening, more than being able to repeat someone’s own words back to them then we must listen deeply with our whole bodies to hear the whole story including what is not being said.
To recap: the process of listening begins with silence, and this process if valid for doulas at work as well as other day-to-day situations where listening is important.
- Inner silence
- Listening with compassion and without agenda
If you would like to know more, then please get in touch or leave a comment below.