Listening, of course, is more than just hearing. It is about paying attention to someone in a way that creates a genuine human connection. Sometimes that connection is enough to enable the person concerned to feel stronger, more confident and better supported in dealing with their difficulties. Listening is an important first step in terms of exploring potential solutions, but at times listening is enough on its own to find the strength to move forward positively. ‘Dadirri’ is a concept drawn from Australian aboriginal culture which refers to the type of listening that creates that all-important bond, listening that gives a strong and genuine message that we are concerned and that we are here to help without judgement. It could be described as listening with our heart, rather than just with our ears. When you have been on the receiving end of such listening you will know about it, as you will feel the positive, empowering effects of it. Learning how to develop dadirri listening is therefore an important step forward for us to take.
Many people confuse sympathy (sharing the same feelings as someone else) and empathy (being able to recognize someone else’s feelings and being able to respond appropriately, but without necessarily having those feelings ourselves), while others settle for apathy, in a state of semi-burnout. But clearly empathy is what we need to aim for: being able to be supportive of others who are wrestling with emotional issues, but without facing the same emotional challenges ourselves. However, what is very clear is that this is not simply a matter of saying: ‘I know how you feel’. This is a very unhelpful and potentially quite counterproductive way to respond, partly because: (i) we do not know how someone else feels (for example, if I am helping someone who has just lost their father, the fact that I have lost my father does not mean that I know how they feel, as our respective experiences of losing a father may have evoked very different feelings); and (ii) making such a comment means we are focusing on our own feelings, rather than those of the person we are trying to help.
In working with people, emotions are never very far away. Being able to tune in to other people’s emotions, to be aware of our own and get the balance of head and heart right is often referred to as ‘emotional intelligence’. A key part of this is being able to tolerate silences. When someone is distressed or otherwise in the grip of strong emotions, they may fall silent, and that silence can feel very uncomfortable for us. We can be very tempted to jump in and ask a question or just fill the gap in some way. Understandable though this may be, it can be quite problematic because we are, in effect, giving the person concerned the message that dealing with our own discomfort is more important than giving them the emotional space they need. If we are able to resist the temptation of filling the silence, we give the much more positive and supportive message that we are there for them, that they are not facing their difficulties unsupported. And what an important message that can be.
This is a mistake I made many times early in my career: making a suggestion or proposal, having no one object to it and then assuming that the lack of explicit objection constituted agreement to what I had put forward. I then had the unpleasant experience of watching my plans fall apart as people did not cooperate with them or play their part in moving things forward – or even, on some occasions, actively sabotaged what I was trying to do. It only slowly became apparent to me that they were never really ‘on board’ in terms of what I had proposed but, for whatever reason, had chosen not to voice their disagreement. So, there is a very important lesson in this: we cannot assume that silence equals consent. A lack of explicit disagreement is not the same as agreement. So, if we are relying on others to bring our plans to fruition, we need to make the effort to ensure that they are genuinely in agreement and make it clear that if they are not, they should say so.
It is not uncommon for us to find ourselves in situations where we are wondering: ‘Why is so and so being so awkward?’. In such circumstances we tend to focus on their behaviour or attitude, but this can be misleading. That is because the chances are that, while we are thinking they are being awkward, they are probably thinking we are being awkward. So, what can often happen is that a situation that is rooted in a conflict between two parties is not recognized as such by either of them, each putting the difficulties down to the other’s ‘awkward’ behaviour. While some people are often uncooperative for their own reasons, in the majority of cases believing that someone is being awkward should alert us to a conflict situation which should be addressed as such – that is, we need to look at the situation in terms of the interactions between us (and any conflicts of interest, perspective, goals or values that might be underpinning them) and not simply in terms of the other person’s behaviour.
From time to time we find ourselves in situations where we are finding it difficult to comprehend what has happened – times of loss, crisis or sudden change, for example. It is as if our head knows, but our heart hasn’t caught up, and so ‘it doesn’t seem real’ can be a thought that runs through our mind. This is a perfectly normal phenomenon and nothing to be concerned about in itself. However, we need to be wary of two potential problems. One is that, when we find ourselves in such a situation, we may make decisions that we later regret because we have been destabilized by the change that has occurred. For example, some people can respond quite rashly in situations where they are confused about what is happening. Second, if we are trying to help somebody who is in a ‘heart hasn’t caught up with head’ situation, we have to bear in mind that they may not be taking on board what we are saying to them because of the sense of emotional shock they are experiencing. We therefore have to choose our moments carefully in interacting with someone in such circumstances.
Communication goes awry quite regularly, which is not surprising when you think about how much of it we do in any given day. One common way in which communication breaks down is when what is said (or written) does not cover both topic and comment. The topic is what we are talking about and the comment is what we are saying about it. They can be articulated separately (‘You know that book on stress I lent you? [topic] I will need it back if that’s OK [comment]’) or together (‘Can you please let me have back that book on stress I lent you?’). Either is fine when both topic and comment are covered, but often, there is a topic identified, but it is not clear what the comment is (‘You’ve got my book on stress, haven’t you?’). Is this simply a comment to check that the book is still in their possession or is it an indirect request for it to be returned? It is not clear. Similarly, effective communication can be undermined by making a comment without specifying the topic – something that commonly evokes a response along the lines of: ‘Sorry, I’m not clear what you’re referring to?’ or ‘Sorry, I’m not with you’. What can be much worse, though, is when the topic is not specified and the person listening makes a false assumption about what the topic is – and then we have a recipe for major misunderstanding and miscommunication. So, it pays to make sure that we are always clear in communicating both topic and comment.
Many times I have heard some people try to justify bullying behaviours by describing oppressive practices as ‘strong leadership’. In reality, using bullying tactics is a sign of a lack of leadership. A leader is someone who shapes a culture and creates an atmosphere where people want to do well, where they want to be part of a team that works well – they do not need to be coerced or intimidated into doing what is required of them. They feel they belong to an important endeavour and are pleased to be part of it. Bullying is a sign that leadership skills are lacking or that the person in a leadership role has failed to grasp what leadership is all about.
There are relatively few people in today’s world of work who are not under time pressures. This is all the more reason that we need to make sure that our time is used wisely. This is not about petty ways of saving 30 seconds here or a minute and a half there, but rather about having the assertiveness skills to protect our valuable time by not allowing others to seduce us into putting time and effort into activities that are not a priority for us. Demands on our time are potentially infinite, but however skilful we are at time management, the time available will always be finite. Don’t let it be spent too cheaply.
Yes, it’s a cliché, but the fact remains that, in working with people and their problems, we are likely to get better results if we smile. Smiling gives a clear message to the effect of ‘I am pleased to be in your company’ while not smiling can give the message that we are not pleased to be in that person’s company. Of course, we don’t want to go overboard and come across as insincere, but smiling really can make a big difference. Sounds obvious? Not worth saying? Just watch people around you and see how often people interact with one another without smiling. You’ll see that lots of opportunities to make a positive connection are being missed.