Listening loudly, a lost art?

Listening loudly is one of my favourite concepts, it implies you are actively listening, paying attention and hearing what is being said. We all know someone who people just open their hearts to, they’re that person who you’ve told your story to without even realising it, that friend who everyone confides in.  Think about it, I’m pretty sure you can think of someone.

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.” –Karl A. Menniger

I think that’s why I enjoy the Listening Project on Radio 4 where people come with their friends and family to have conversations packed with fun, love and pain and they really listen to each other, sharing their stories, unfolding their relationships demonstrating the power of listening.

Sadly our conversations rarely include active listening, too often our day-to-day dialogue is at best a dance with two people waiting to speak, at worst a verbal sparring for speaking rights.  Instead of listening to the other person we concentrate on how to make our next point, get our perspective in, make a statement, we’re thinking ahead rarely listening to what is or isn’t being said, how it’s being said… Stephen Covey hit the nail on the head: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  


Sociologist Les Back argues that our culture is one “that speaks rather than listens. From reality TV to political rallies, there is a clamour to be heard, to narrate, and to receive attention. It reduces ‘reality’ to revelation and voyeurism.” (The Art of Listening, Les Back: 2007)

Think back to last conversation you had, what was your intent? How was your tolerance for silence? Did you sit with it or did you try to fill the space? When was the last time you stopped yourself making a statement and instead asked an open question? What difference might that have made to the conversation you had?


Coaches, therapists, counsellors, researchers learn to listen loudly, actively making space for people to tell their stories, share their feelings and express their opinions.

But great listening skills aren’t just important for people working in ‘listening’ professions. We could all benefit from more awareness of how to listen well. Parents with children, families, friends, work colleagues… How much more engaged could we be and how much more understanding would we have if we stopped and really listened to what other people are saying?

Listening actively is more than about hearing the words someone is saying, it’s multi-layered and contextual – we need to understand their environment, hear what’s not being said and listen to the cadence and rhythm of their story.

Listening well is a simple act of human empathy but it’s not always easy…

 “Listening is a positive act, you have to put yourself out to do it” – David Hockney

Listening has played a huge role in my life. My career as a qualitative researcher exploring difficult social issues like poverty, disadvantage and discrimination taught me how to listen gently to people and encourage them to share their stories, however painful or distressing, without imposing my views or perspectives on their narrative. That was tough, learning to listen, not intervening or trying to ‘mend’ situations knowing that the power of the telling would be when we could weave those stories together into a compelling analysis and place it in front of people with the power to make a difference. It was uncomfortable to learn to sit with silence, not jumping in to relieve my discomfort. But frequently from that silence came the most profound revelations, feelings and insights.

It took me years to learn how to listen properly, ask questions which probed gently but didn’t lead and it’s a craft that needs constant attention. No two conversations are the same.

For most of my adult life I’ve also been involved in education & learning working with people to build their strengths and grow their capabilities. Listening plays a huge role here too whether in coaching, understanding what people need or in facilitation. What do people need to learn? How best can they build their skills and knowledge, what makes them uncomfortable, what challenges them, what gets them thinking in new and creative ways? You just can’t answer these questions without listening deeply. If you want to build a learning community you have to listen, broadcasting doesn’t work well for deep learning or for building relationships (see my earlier post here on building communities).

Social media and the growth of digital communication are often blamed for a decline in conversation and a rise in broadcasting. We’ve certainly seen a growth in abuse and the Brexit campaign led me along with others to question the quality, and kindness, that often seemed lacking in political, public and our personal dialogues. But it’s lazy to blame social media, after all they are what we make them. The conversations, broadcasting, support or abuse are largely created by us (give or take the robot spammers). Yet I’ve also seen many instances where online conversations offered positive empathy, support and succour.

Several years ago I found myself with the proverbial boot on the other foot. I was in pain, experiencing deep depression and I couldn’t talk to my closest friends or family. I needed to talk and more importantly I needed to be listened to. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that need at the time, but my months in the counselling chair, and on the telephone to the support helpline I’d call occasionally when things got too much, taught me how supportive and life-changing the power of empathic, active listening could be. Those listening spaces gave me room to talk, and somewhere I could sit with my silence, reach my own conclusions and answers. And it helped, unquantifiably so. It wasn’t that my friends and family didn’t want to help, they really did, they were simply ill-equipped to listen they wanted to fix, find a solution and make things happen for me. I just needed to be heard and not judged.


And now I happily find myself working at Samaritans where 20,000+ volunteers provide a 24/7 listening service to people who need emotional support, in just the last twelve months they’ve answered 3,650, 986 individual calls. I’ll let that sink in.

If this doesn’t tell us that as a society our listening skills could be better I don’t know what does. I don’t just hope I know that if we all listened more, and talked less then we could make a difference. Listening is neglected art and one we could all do with refreshing and strengthening.

shushWhatever you’re going through, you can call Samaritans for free any time, from any phone on 116 123. And you might want to have a look at some of our resources for listening well like our listening wheel and SHUSH listening tips.

Why it’s time to talk

Today is the first #timetotalk day, part of the brilliant Time to Change campaign led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. The aim is to start a million conversations across the UK about mental health and wellbeing. It’s five years now since I was diagnosed with clinical depression and talking was a huge part of my recovery and continues to be an important element of how I manage my mental health on a daily basis. I first blogged about this a couple of years ago so it feels right to return to the topic today.

At first talking was impossible, not just because I didn’t know how to express the depth and despondency of the feelings I had but also because I was worried about what people would think, how they’d react. What snap decisions would they make about my abilities or competency because of my mental health? At a point when I could barely understand my feelings let alone verbalise them, someone suggested I cheer up & snap out of it. I wished I could. But then I wondered if everyone else was thinking the same. We wouldn’t dream of telling someone with a broken leg or cancer to snap out of it. Just when you need to talk that sort of response, that stigma, can lock you away. Thankfully the stigma around depression and other mental health conditions is slowly receding in the face of concerted public campaigns like Time to Change. But it still exists.

Talking really does help. I don’t mean professional talking (although talking therapy is invaluable to many people and played a big role in rebuilding my world), I’m talking about the everyday emotional connection that comes from someone saying hello, asking how you are doing and meaning it, and most of all not avoiding you or averting their gaze because your illness makes them uncomfortable.

I was lucky I had family, friends and colleagues who took time to check in with me, help me take things at my own pace and who importantly listened when I wanted to talk, didn’t force it when I couldn’t connect, and let me shape the flow of our dialogue. It meant the world to me. And many of those conversations weren’t about my mental health, they were simple day-to-day natters about everything and nothing. But each one was a thread that wove me back into my life.

The more we bring conversations about mental health, wellbeing & illness into our daily lives, the more time we make to talk and really listen to each other, then the better our relationships & connections will be. We all have mental health, and one in four of us will experience mental illness at some point in our lives.

So why not join me today, start a conversation. It doesn’t have to be ‘the’ conversation, or a deep or long conversation, just a chat, maybe with a cuppa, it could make all the difference, it did to me. If you want some tips then see the image below or visit the Time to Change site.


And if you’re stuck for a way to start the conversation then why not sign the pledge wall and let everyone know you agree it’s time to change. And to everyone who took time and care to talk to me when I needed it, thank you.

Reblogged: The 25% Club: The Black Dog

First Posted by Alison Chisnell as part of a series on mental health on her wonderful blog The HR Juggler on January 30, 2013

This post is part of the 25% club series dealing with the topic of mental health, particularly as it relates to the workplace. Some of the posts, like today’s, will be accredited, others will be anonymous – all have a powerful impact and help to shine a light on a topic that we need to talk about so much more than we currently do. Today’s post is by Kandy Woodfield, who you can find on Twitter @jess1ecat.

“A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end. The fog is like a cage without a key.”

Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation

When I read ‘Courage’ it touched a nerve, truthfully more than just one. It was a powerful account of living with a mental health condition. Despite the fact that 1 in 4 of us will experience mental health issues at some point in our lives remains a taboo in the workplace which is why I’m so pleased that the overwhelming response to that powerful post has created a conversation amongst tweeting HR professionals. It touched me because I’ve been there, several years ago what Churchill called his ‘black dog’ reared its head in my life. Truth be told it had probably always been there.

Over the years I’d ignored it, bartered with it, avoided asking for help, tried lots of ways to free myself of the paralysing insomnia, loneliness & anxiety my depression had gifted me. I never asked for help, I thought people would tell me to ‘snap out of it’, that somehow it was my failure, my inability to cope, that I’d brought it on myself. That’s my story but depression is a clever chameleon, others will experience a range of different symptoms so never assume you know what someone is going through.

My black dog floored me, eventually I could barely engage with those closest to me far less get up and go to work. This time I was down for the count and every day since then I’ve been grateful that my family and my employer had the understanding and insight to support me.

We can each do something small to help change taboos about mental health, think about the words and phrases you use in everyday conversations about mental health, imagine what it would be like if we used that language about other illnesses? I don’t hide my experiences but I don’t broadcast them either (well until now!) and I understand why some people choose not to disclose, we each have to make the decision which is right for us. I was lucky I had a supportive employer and a line manager who understood I needed to take things at my own pace and I’d talk when I was ready.

So what can we do as HR professionals and colleagues , friends & family to support someone experiencing depression?

Read all you can, the following all have excellent online support: Depression Alliance, MindBlack Dog Tribe
Listen, have an open mind and never assume you know what it feels like, depression is not just about being a bit ‘down in the dumps’ and it varies from person to person. You can start by watching this brilliant video to see why the black dog metaphor is spot on
Never assume you know what will help – ask the individual what they think might help, see what their GP has suggested, help them find talking therapy if they feel that might help, the provision of MH services is very patchy and trying to negotiate that maze alone is hard at the best of times.
Support them if they want to carry on working – will it help to change or reduce their hours? This is especially important if sleeplessness is an issue or medication includes sedative properties.
Have a simple system to manage short-notice absence, depression fluctuates you can cope one day but the next day may be different
Look at the diary, what is filling them with dread? Find someone else to do it. I couldn’t do large events or networking in the thick of my depression, the thought of a room full of five or more people would fill me with horror.

With time and support I faced my black dog, the fog lifted and the cage opened and I am thankful every day that I came through it, not everyone does. Mental health matters and we can all be a part of making a change that’s why I’m proud to be part of the #25percent club
If you care about mental health and want to make a difference there are lots of things you can do:
– visit Mind’s website and check out their excellent corporate resources
– take the ‘time to change’ pledge