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The art of listening… is also the art of not talking

July 23 2017


Being there for someone and really listening to them without feeling the need to come up with answers and solutions is something we can all struggle to do. Maggie Harding, who works with Livability’s Community Engagement team, shares how several recent stories have reminded her of the power of silence.

I know I talk too much! I can’t seem to help it. I jump in too quickly, I don’t wait for people to finish and I talk too soon without leaving space. I’m convinced it’s not accidental that we have two ears and one mouth and I need to listen twice as much as I speak, but it’s hard.

It’s a common problem – we feel the need to solve the problem or justify our existence and being there just doesn’t feel enough. This is despite the fact that we so often hear it said that this is what makes the difference for someone. There have been several recent reminders of this that have convinced me afresh that the best thing we can do for those we meet in our communities – whatever their needs – is to just listen and keep our pearls of wisdom and our own experiences to ourselves.

The first reminder of this came in the wake of the terror attacks in Manchester and London, and then again after the horrendous fire of Grenfell Tower in East London. Time and time again, people testified about the need to be heard, to just be allowed to tell their stories, to be really listened to. There was no need for any kind of response.

The second reminder came when a homeless man turned up after a church service recently. We gave him what he wanted – a sleeping bag and a meal – and struggled to understand him, as he talked about where he’d come from and where he was going. He was not easy to listen to. He sounded confused and conspiratorial, and more than a little paranoid, so we weren’t surprised to learn, when he came back a week later, that he was a schizophrenic who had skipped his medication. The point is, he was so random that it was impossible to engage with anything he said, or make any kind of response, so we just listened. Trying to help him sort his life out was pointless – he wasn’t in a position to take it in or do anything about it – it was a real reminder that it’s so often not appropriate anyway.

The final clincher was reading the Guardian article, A moment that changed me: listening to, rather than trying to fix, my suicidal wife, in which Mark Lukach discovered the power of listening to his wife in silence. He says, “It dawned on me how little I had been listening to her, without judgment or rush to action. She didn’t need me to tell her that everything was going to be OK. That didn’t help. She needed me to hear her pain. …I finally learned that ….the greatest gift you can give is to listen, patiently and purely.”

I think we know this, but we need reminding regularly because it’s so hard to do. There is often nothing to say and we really do say it best when we say nothing at all.

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