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22 Jun 2009

Would you know if you’re a good listener?

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

t-lunchtalk-sxchu-325656-c-Manny-ProebsterI was at a conference this weekend, and met two people who have been on my mind.

One of them, Lucía, was a gracious and skilled listener. She really took in what I was saying, was curious about the ideas, was really present. We had a real, two-way conversation.

And the other, Marc, was a passionate talker. He’s the sort of person you might find on one of those CNN debate shows, hurling one-liners across the table. That interaction was interesting, but mostly one-way, with me as the audience.

But here’s the strange thing: Lucía, whom I thought was a pretty good listener, said “I’m not a good listener—I need to take your workshop.”

Whereas, Marc, who demonstrated little interest in listening, said, among other things, “Listening? Oh I already do that.”

 And this was by no means an isolated experience. What I’m finding is that the people who say “I’m not a good listener” generally demonstrate strong listening skills in that very conversation.

I don’t know if it’s just modesty that leads them to claim that they aren’t good listeners, or if they genuinely see opportunities to improve. My hunch is that it’s the latter—above average listeners have the perspective to see that being an even better listener is possible and desirable.

 And on the flipside, I often find that those who proclaim to be great listeners tell me that they have no need to improve–all the while demonstrating poor listening skills in the conversation. It’s like the activity of listening just doesn’t hold much value for them—but they still consider themselves good at it.

 Where that leaves me is making a conscious decision to focus my efforts on working with those who naturally see the value of listening, connection, and relationships. Working with the strength in the community, if you will.

10 May 2009

Let Them Hurt

Posted by eranmagen. 2 Comments

My grandmother recently moved to a senior citizens home, and is not very happy about it. She misses her old apartment (where she lived for the past 2,000 years), she misses knowing that her old apartment exists as it used to (it was renovated by the people who live there now), she misses her autonomy, and having a gas stove.

She’s doing okay; she’s just not happy.

I visited her a little while ago, together with a few other family members. When, at some point, she mentioned how much she misses her old apartment and how unhappy she occasionally feels, one family member jumped in: “Well, You have to realize, You’re getting older, and You can’t do things as well as You used to. It’s not safe for You to live alone. Your apartment is gone now – there’s really nothing that can be done about it. You are not in a position to take care of yourself, and-”

I had to intervene.* I could see my grandmother growing more upset, feeling alone in her misery. I stopped the person who was speaking, quite forcefully, relative to me (“enough! There’s no need to twist the knife. Really”)and then turned to my grandmother and said “You really miss your old place, huh?”

She relaxed. A tiny, precarious smile flickered across her mouth. And she said “yes.” Then she straightened up, said “but this is how things are now, and I must take it as it comes.”

This, to me, is such a clear example of the danger that lies in trying to take someone’s pain away too quickly. My grandmother, for better or worse, has most of her mental faculties left intact. She knew what her situation is, and how she got there. She didn’t need explaining. She needed sympathy, someone who would understand how she feels and accept it, without trying to change it.

It was that simple.

When someone tells You about the pain they’re experiencing, don’t rush in to fix it. Let them hurt. It may feel strange, it may be counter-intuitive. Do this as an experiment. Try being present to their pain, acknowledging it and WIGing it back at them. Who knows. You might just help them feel better by not trying so hard.


* Was I jumping in because I couldn’t bear the distress I thought I could see? The intensity of my speech to my family member suggests that this may have happened; be that as it may, I still feel good about intervening, though I wish I were gentler with the other person

10 May 2009

“Active Silence”

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

SilenceSeveral of my good friends have been going through challenging times, which means I’ve been doing a lot of Supportive Listening lately. And in my listening I’ve started to take a much more active stance towards the moments of silence that invariably happen.

But what is “active silence?” Consider this scenario: There you are, listening to someone talk through a challenge. And then they stop talking. What now? Do you ask a question? Share a WIG? Or just wait?

It’s easy to consider silence in conversations as being of little value. It can seem as if nothing is happening, as if it’s a time when as a listener you can just tune out while you wait for the speaker.

But I think that tuning out compromises the value of silence, for one simple reason.  Great Supportive Listening conversations are powered by the connection between the two people.  And that connection matters even when nobody is talking, and perhaps even especially when nobody is talking.

I’ve seen an active, connected silence give birth to many good things.

For one, when I sit in active silence with someone who has just expressed a worry, it often helps them to digest that worry and get more comfortable with it.  I don’t know what’s going on, but the speaker seems to take a step forward.

Another outcome from an active silence is the joy of the unexpected—a surprising new insight that seems to come out of nowhere. Sometimes the longer silences are the ones that yield these moments of creativity. I wonder if this happens because when one sits in silence for long enough, without the usual train of thought or interruption, it creates space for really new ideas to come up—the kind of ideas that move people in new directions.

Now how does one stay “active” during the silence in a conversation? Here’s what works for me.

First off, I handle my own discomfort with the silence, the part where I’m thinking, “Should I be saying something?” I handle it by taking three conscious breaths, which calms me down and allows some time to pass. By that time, the speaker will have either started talking again, or have given me clues through their body language as to what they need.

Secondly, I find that consciously reminding myself of the value of the silence really does help. Here’s how I do it: when I’m sitting in that silence, I’ll say to myself “Just wait, she’s still working, let her work,” while I make a conscious effort to remain present, connected, and quiet. I’ve seen so many people benefit from these active silences that I now get excited when it happens, wondering what surprises await on the other side of the silence.

Thirdly, I’ve come to trust that it’s OK to wait a little too long in silence. I’ve observed that when the speaker needs me to say something, they’ll let me know. And that even if the silence that goes on too long and they change the subject, I can still invite them to come back to the topic with a simple WIG.  And if they actually did have more to say about it, they will.

There is great potential for silence when it is properly appreciated.  Rather than meaning that something is wrong, silence can be good news. It can mean that difficult feelings are being processed and moved through. It can mean that surprising new insights are about to show up.

A key to having a valuable Supportive Listening conversation, whether there is a lot of talking or a lot of silence, is tending to the connection. Over the next few days, push a little on maintaining that connection through the silences, and see what it does to your conversations.


BTW, for more on silence, check out my blog entry Three Kinds of Silence.

5 Mar 2009

WAIT! Don’t close that door.

Posted by paulandrew. 5 Comments


So there I am, the Supportive Listener, doing the listening thing. And it’s working. My dear friend is exploring her challenge, her mind is working, the ideas are flowing. And then it happens. She says to me, very earnestly, “So Paul, what should I do?”

Wow, this is tempting. I love to help people, and I have been known to blurt out advice. But this time is different—I’m doing a good job of just listening, of not jumping in. Ah, finally I’m being asked for advice. Great! So I’m ready to roll. They asked me for it, right?

WAIT! Although in one way it’s true: words did come out of my friend’s mouth that sounded an awful lot like a direct request for advice. But let’s be a little smarter about this. “What  should I do?”often has a much more important meaning than “give me advice”—it can be a doorway to great thinking.

That’s right, when the speaker says “What should I do?” they are standing right on the doorway of their own insight. The great ideas are just about to flow out of them. It’s about to happen.

But here’s the trick: if I answer that question, that apparent request for advice, I am *slamming* that door of insight shut. The minute I give advice, my friend goes into “receiving” mode, and their mind shifts gears. The momentum shifts from “her working towards the solution” to “me solving it.” All of those great ideas she was about to uncover are quietly tucked away. Now she’s just following along, as I generate the ideas, I lead the way.

What I propose to you is this: when the speaker is in charge, the results are more fruitful and more empowering. It’s the “best case scenario” when someone solves their own problem. So why not give that process a chance?

Instead of answering your friend’s oh so tempting “What should I do?” question, do this: bounce it back to them. It takes practice to develop your own style; my favorite way is a very simple “I dunno, what’s your take?”

A shocking (shocking!) number of times, that’s all it takes for the speaker to be off and running, opening that door of insight and discovering a surprising number of insights. After this happens, I always think “WOW am I glad I didn’t answer that.”

Now sometimes my “quick bounce back” line of “what’s your take?” doesn’t work. I get “I don’t know, that’s why I asked you.” And for this I have a backup approach that often does the trick: “Well, what are your options?” And they are off and running again.

You can imagine that this back and forth could go on for quite some time: my friend thinking through their challenge, discovering insights, coming up with solutions and then handing leadership of the exploration back to me. And I just keep giving it back to them, in as neutral a way as I can. And they keep working. It’s really neat.

The key idea is this: your friend, your partner, your child, this person who you’re listening for has huge potential within them to find great insight and solutions to their own problems. Rather than taking charge and giving advice, hold open that door of insight for them. Bounce that “What should I do?” question back to them. And when they amaze you with their solutions, smile—you helped make that happen.

— Paul.

 ©2008-2009 Supportive Listening

9 Feb 2009

What we *don’t* mean by “listen”

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

sxc-hu-obey-hand-498917-c-miguel-ugaldeWhen I tell people that I teach listening, they are often surprised. Some people ask “Can that be taught?” I like to reply “I sure hope so,” with a smile.

But then as the discussion progresses, I realize that the word “listening” means very different things to different people.

For Part I of this article, I’ll consider two of the common interpretations that are *not* what the “listening” in Supportive Listening stand for.

Supportive Listening is not about obedience.

I was at the optometrist and upon hearing that I teach listening, she said “I wish I could teach my son to listen. He never listens to anything that I say.” I asked for more detail (of course) and she went on to say that she’ll tell her five year old son to brush his teeth, and he’ll ignore her and keep playing his video game.

“Do you think he hears you?” I asked.

“Oh yes, he hears me.”

OK so the issue here isn’t about a hearing problem, it’s about obedience—along the lines of “You’d better listen to me or there’s going to be trouble!” This is using the term “listening” in the context of one person holding power over another.

When we say “Supportive Listening,” this isn’t what we mean. 🙂 I can be a Supportive Listener, you can make your request, I can respect that that’s your view, and yet I can still have my own point of view. Just because I hear, understand, and accept what you’re saying, it doesn’t I have to obey it.

Supportive Listening is not about agreement.

So I’m talking with “A,” well more accurately I’m having a “heated discussion” with “A,” and she declares “You’re not listening to me!”

Aha, a challenge! (Yes, I’ll admit, I was contributing to the heat.) And so I repeat back to her exactly what she just said, and I smugly say “Did I get that right?”

And she replies, “Yes but that’s what I don’t understand! If you heard what I said, why are we still arguing?”

Ahh, and therein lies another definition for listening. That if I’m actually listening to you, listening carefully, and really hearing you, then I’ll agree with you. Right?


I remember being in an energetic conversation with a good friend many years ago, on the topic of spirituality. I kept trying to explain something to her, but she just wasn’t getting it, or so I thought.

Finally she stopped, eloquently summarized what I’d said, checked to see that she’d understood (she had) and then patiently explained that her views were different. Ahh.

So she’d listened very competently—she just didn’t agree. From this experience I came to understand a common listening fallacy that goes like this:

“If you only understood my point of view, then you’d agree that it’s the right one.”


Supportive Listening is great because it gives me the chance to listen really carefully to you, accept your point of view as yours, and still be my own, perfectly acceptable, person—a person who has a different view than you. It’s “live and let live.”

The beauty here is that with Supportive Listening, you can be understood and respected without us having to agree on whom or what is “right.”

Just because I hear, understand, and accept doesn’t mean that I agree.

There you have it: Supportive Listening is about neither obedience nor agreement. So then what *is* Supportive Listening about? I’ll cover that in my next article.

3 Feb 2009

More Support, Less Drain: Differentiation in Supportive Listening

Posted by eranmagen. No Comments

2angryTrue emotional connection is one of the key ingredients of good listening.

Unfortunately, when we come into emotional contact with someone who is upset, the experience can be difficult for us: We put forth our best Supportive Listening attitude, we try to relate to the other’s experience and to understand what it must like to be them – and we find that we are becoming upset ourselves, just like the person we are listening to. I can’t believe they did that to his car! How dare they talk about her like that? It’s just heartbreaking that he lost everything…

Many people intuitively assume that we provide the best support by displaying, and even experiencing, the same emotions as the person we are talking with. The reasoning is something like: This way they’ll know I’m on their side, and will feel better. He is sad? I’ll be sad as well. She’s annoyed? I’ll be annoyed too. These are examples of taking on another person’s emotions – a state that Murray Bowen termed “Emotional Fusion.”

Although this approach makes intuitive sense, it leads to two problematic consequences, which diminish our ability to provide effective support:

(1) Being upset is an emotionally intense state, and will drain us before long. If we know that whenever we talk to somebody who is angry (or sad, or afraid) we become angry (or sad, or afraid), we will begin avoiding these conversations, and provide less support overall.

(2) Ironically, the person we are supporting may realize that he is making us upset and. If he is sensitive enough, he may actually self-censure so as not to upset us too much.This, of course, is the exact opposite of the result we are hoping to achieve when providing support – namely, providing the other person with a space to express himself and process his experience in a safe, accepting space.

Does this mean it would be better if we remained aloof and unconcerned with the other person’s emotions? Such lack of connection may be unpleasant for us, and will certainly do little to comfort another. If You are reading this, You probably care about other people, and wish to alleviate their suffering as much as You can. But if taking on the other person’s emotions is unhelpful, and remaining aloof and uncaring is also unhelpful, what is left for us to do?

What we can do is try our best to remain engaged, caring, and connected, without taking on the other person’s emotions – to adopt a stance that Murray Bowen called “Differentiation.” Being differentiated is not the same as being uncaring, nor does it mean being cold. It means being able to recognize another’s emotions as his own, while maintaining our own emotional balance.

Carl Rogers defined “Accurate Empathy” as the ability to “…sense the [other’s] private world as if it were your own, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ quality.” This ability to maintain this frame of mind, to interact with a distressed person without taking on his distress, even while caring deeply about his distress, is a fundamental skill that lies at the core of Supportive Listening.

– Eran

26 Jan 2009

The joy of being listened to

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

sm-walking-together-sxchu-398250_1554-c-carl-dwyer1I sat down for dinner with “A” last night when she announced “I’m always the one talking — now I’m going to listen for you.  What’s on your mind?” Now I’m certainly not one to turn down an offer for listening, and so I took a deep breath and started to talk.

At first I was a little tentative because I thought that she’d jump in, as has happened in the past.  But after I put a couple of big ideas out there, I saw that she was just hanging back, and at most doing a WIG. So I relaxed a little more, took another breath, and continued talking.

We got into a rhythm where I put a few ideas out there, and she’d do a really simple WIG. It was a really nice feeling to simply be accompanied as I walked through my concerns.  Because she didn’t interrupt, because she let me be quiet sometimes, and because when she did talk she just touched base with what I’d said, I felt supported and accepted.

Then a curious thing happened.  In the space of being listened to so nicely, I started to develop a certain curiosity about what I was saying.  It’s as if I was freed up to view my concerns in a new way. And so I started to explore these challenges, and find new perspectives.

While I can’t say that I had any huge breakthroughs, my perspective shifted a little. I think that that’s the start of a meaningful change. And I can definitely say that I felt much better, about the situation and about myself, after the conversation.

Here’s to the gift of great listening.

8 Jan 2009

Listening Lessons from a Grand Book about Parenting

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

cover-how-to-talk-so-kids1Over the past several months I have been reviewing several popular books on listening. And in the course of my reading, I have come across a wonderful book called “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Although I don’t have children, I find this book to be a refreshing view on the topics of growth and helping.

The ideas in “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen…” resonate for me because they are grounded in principles of respect for and empowerment of others, as is Supportive Listening. The authors point out how well meaning parents can habitually deny children their feelings, as illustrated by the example of a parent who says to a child, “You couldn’t be tired, you just napped.”

In their book Faber and Mazlish offer a way to listen carefully, acknowledge what the child is saying, and then help the child to name the feeling that they are experiencing. Although guessing and naming the feelings of the speaker isn’t part of Supportive Listening, I could see such a technique could being useful in listening to children, particularly young children.

“How to Talk So Kids Will Listen…” has a whole chapter on how to encourage autonomy in children. Of the six pointers that they give, I found three of them to be extremely valuable in encouraging autonomy in anyone, not just children.

  • Show autonomy for the child’s struggle. It can be difficult to be present to the struggle of somebody who I care about. And yet out of struggle comes learning and growth. By not taking away that struggle, I leave room for the growth to happen.
  • Don’t ask too many questions. While open-ended questions can be helpful to invite somebody to get clarity into their challenge, too many questions becomes an inquisition. When I ask too many questions, the process becomes one of me as a listener troubleshooting, as opposed to they as speaker thinking and exploring.
  • Don’t rush to answer questions. As someone is thinking through their challenge, they will often say a question out loud. But it doesn’t mean that they are actually asking me, and that I need to answer it. I love to put the question back to the person, by simply saying “What do you think?” And I am surprised by how often they come up with an answer to their own question that is new, that they hadn’t thought of before.

This chapter on autonomy has a special section specifically about advice.  In Supportive Listening workshops I am sometimes asked “What’s the problem with giving advice?” I think that advice can be a useful tool in specific scenarios, but is vastly overused and carries risks. Faber and Mazlish nicely summarize these risks:

When you give immediate advice to children, they either feel stupid (” Why didn’t I think of that myself?”), resentful (“Don’t tell me how to run my life!”), or irritated (“What makes you think I didn’t think of that already?”).

and the upsides of listening:

When a child figures out for herself what she wants to do, she grows in confidence and is willing to assume responsibility for her decision.

As listeners, we have the potential to support growth and learning in those around us.

“How to Talk So Kids Will Listen…” has a very novel feature: the use of two to four panel cartoons to illustrate the key concepts.  Each concept has one cartoon to show the old problematic parent-child interaction, and another to show the new interaction that results from using the concept. From these nicely illustrated everyday scenarios, I quickly got the main ideas, and in fact by flipping through these for each chapter, was able to get a decent overview of the whole book. It’s a fantastic teaching tool.

[If you want to see these online, you can do so if you log into the Barnes and Noble page for this book. Click “See Inside,” search for the word “feelings” and read from page 9 to page 13.]

Each chapter in the book is nicely rounded out with interactive exercises, written practice, real-life stories, and questions and answers.

If you’re interested in learning more about this book, you can browse through excerpts for free on Harper Collins website, or find it at your local library.

31 Dec 2008

Eastern and Western approaches to listening

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

930142_beatiful_nature_1-scxhu-c-trnavackaOver the past several months I’ve read several books on listening and have discovered a very interesting spectrum on which most books can be placed.  It has to do with “extra time.” Let me explain.

Consider the notion that listeners can listen faster than speakers can talk. We’re talking up to 125 words a minute for a fast speaker versus 400 words a minute of compression for an astute listener. Thus the question becomes “in that ‘extra time’, what should the listener do?”

At one end of the spectrum is the grand old book of listening, Are You Listening? by Dr. Ralph G. Nichols, written back in 1957. In his book, Nichols talks about the situation of the “tortoise talkers – hare listeners” and offers that listeners should make full use of this “extra time” by mentally reviewing and analyzing what the speaker has said so far.

As he puts it:

The listener thinks ahead of the talker, trying to guess what the aural discourse is leading to, what conclusions will be drawn from a word spoken at the moment.

To me he seems to be saying that in those moments of silence, there’s really nothing to be gained by simply being present. Or at the least, it’s more valuable to be intentionally processing what the speaker has said, than to just sit there. I see this as a “Western” point of view that says that I have to be doing something consciously intellectual in order to add value.

The other end of the spectrum can be found in the book Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening where Kay Lindahl explores a more “Eastern” view of what to do with this extra time. She observes:

The way we listen to others has a clear impact on the quality and depth of the conversation. Many times we think we already know what the other person is going to say, so we stopped playing close attention. A voice going in our heads which says, “I know that,” or “yes, but what about this and what about that,” or “that will never work” or “you have no idea” or “that’s not right.”

And she goes on to write about connection:

Deep listening occurs at the heart level. It is present when we feel most connected to another person or to a group of people. Our hearts expand our capacity to communicate with those of different beliefs and customs increases.

It seems to me that there is something very important and special going on in that connection between speaker and listener, in spite of this difference in speed.  And if I as a listener am busy trying to analyze what the speaker has said previously, and am trying to guess where they’re going next, that connection just isn’t going to be as tight or as meaningful.  I just can’t be fully present and open to this person in front of me, as their process unfolds, and at the same time be consciously processing what they just said.

That isn’t to say that processing doesn’t happen at all when I’m just really present.  But possibly that processing is done at a deeper, subconscious level, but I don’t need to put any focus attention on it.  I just developed a deep sense of understanding of what the speaker has been talking about, and “without even trying” I just sort of get it.

In this worldview, I focus my attention on the process of being present and connected, and trust the speaker will (magically) benefit from that. I don’t need to intellectually “do” anything, and in fact if I try to, it’ll get in the way.

I think that there is a time and a place for intellect and “making things happen.” However there is a largely unexplored world, particularly for listeners, in just being present without expectation. It’s a leap-give it a try and see what happens.

28 Nov 2008

The pleasure of being WIG’d

Posted by paulandrew. No Comments

fruits-sxchu-426229-c-john-mooreLast Wednesday I was at the checkout counter at the Key Market across the street. I had bought some fruit—a few bananas, a few apples—when I realized I’d forgotten something.

The friendly young lady at the checkout counter, with the funky glasses, says “Can I get you a bag for this?”

“No thanks, I meant to bring my own bag but I just never remember to bring it,” I replied.

And to this she says, “It’s easy to forget, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it sure is!” I beamed, feeling happily accepted and understood.

What a great WIG. She had beautifully summed up what I’d said, in her own words, in a way that said to me “it happens, it’s normal.” Plus she didn’t follow up with a suggestion or an idea. Not that that would have been a disaster, but it was nice to just be left alone to consider a solution to my forgetting—or not.

It’s funny thinking back on this experience because it was such a brief, casual exchange. And yet I still remember how great it felt to be acknowledged so simply and skillfully.

And it is encouraging for me to think that the benefits of Supportive Listening, and a well placed WIG, however brief, can brighten someone’s day. Try it.