Before I started to work for myself, I worked on several crisis support services that specialised in offering non-judgemental listening to people who were experiencing addiction and mental health difficulties. I was part of a team that saw people who were rarely in touch with any other kind of support. We supported people who were frequently sharing stories about themselves for the first time. We were trusted with disclosures of heart-breaking experiences of isolation, abuse and betrayal. We unceasingly had our eyes opened by many whose traumatic personal experiences were grossly exacerbated by cultural and systemic oppression.
Many insights came to us in these listening services. We realised that we needed to be willing to sit with the same person and hear them share the same agonising stories many times. These humbling encounters birthed a wisdom in us, that respected the time it can take for people to trust. A wisdom that understood that those who have been repeatedly let down in life, are rightfully cautious to risk engaging more fully with an organisation and its workers. And this same wisdom taught us the importance of supporting personal agency in those that we were employed to serve. Our drop-ins and helplines stood out as rare hubs of kindness where people were able to move at a pace that felt safe and manageable for them.
Listening in this way called us into truly 'being with' another. We had to show up and connect in ways that created space, reduced pressure and built foundations of safety. Unlike the stability of listening spaces such as one to one therapy, open access and walk in services come with a lot more unpredictability. We were supporting people who might choose to engage for just a few minutes, or who might be under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. We were listening to folk who might need to pace the room or leave the building several times whilst speaking with us. Alongside this, our conversations often took place with a backdrop of other people milling through our shared space with a wide range of urgent requests and needs.
What's it like to listen in a crisis?
I worked regularly on these services myself, and also managed teams of volunteers who covered weekly shifts. This meant that I got to hear a lot about how it was for the workers to be in these listening roles.
They shared their fury and frustration at hearing stories of impasse after impasse in our dense and senseless systems. They let me into their sorrow at how cruel life had been to some people, and we delighted together at the power of offering genuine and heartfelt human connection to another.
Over and over again, I witnessed the volunteers showing sincere commitment to staying as present as possible to repeated stories of relentless despair from people whose hearts could not break anymore.
Typically there was a spectrum of impact from exhilaration to exhaustion on the workers. My role was to help them to find somewhere in between extremes, so that their nervous systems could sustain a longer term commitment to this often chaotic and demanding work.
The support I offered came in the form of 1:1 and group supervision. These were places where we could give space to their feelings, and reflect upon what interrupted or supported their listening. We explored relational patterns that arose in moments where they wanted to take over and rescue people, or conversely turn away and shut down to what felt unbearable. We talked about how boundaries, limits and self care could replenish them, enabling them to continue to stay resilient, present and engaged in the work.
Thirty years on, I have a mass of experience from working, developing and managing a multitude of listening services. I have simultaneously reflected a lot on what it takes to stay present and simply be with another. I continue to learn so much about what it really takes to listen well, whilst remaining in a genuine and nourishing connection with self.
What are the components of sustainable listening?
The quality of listening we offer comprises our motivation, the specific skills we use and the degree to which we feel grounded and relaxed into the present moment.
Our motivation to listen refers to the kinds of things that the volunteers and I would explore in our supervision time. How we will be impacted by simple factors like our levels of tiredness, hunger and how much time we have. How our relationship with the person speaking and, with what they are speaking about, affects how invested and able we are to remain attentive. And how to recognise, that if we have a lot going on for ourselves emotionally, it will be harder to listen to another from a place of spacious attentiveness.
The second component of sustainable listening is a skill set called Active Listening Skills. Techniques such as facial expressions, reflecting content and clarifying understanding, have long been recognised as important tools that support a coherent flow of communication. They are used to convey attention, and check that what the listener is understanding, is the same as what is being said by the speaker.
Receptive listening refers to where we listen from, and invites us to place our attention into the part of us that is most deeply present, relaxed and grounded. This practice supports us to put down many of the habitual patterns that interfere with our listening and that contribute to burnout. Rather than trying to be one step ahead of those we listen to, or attempting to rescue someone from their feelings or striving to move them away from where they are; receptive listening allows us to sustain a present moment connection with the person and what they are communicating to us.
How does receptive listening work?
When two or more people are focused on what is being shared and explored in the present moment, rather than trying to fix, avoid or minimise it, something more becomes possible through the shared field of their connection.
When we listen together in this way, we create something akin to a focused meditative field of concentrated energy. If, instead of striving for suggestions and solutions, we relax into this field of attention, we access a more expansive awareness of our own experience whilst listening to each other. Where previously reactions may have risen up more quickly in us, we can now notice our thoughts, feelings and sensations without necessarily acting from them.
Initially this may feel quite strange to the part of our mind that is conditioned to come up with quick answers and to 'know' how to proceed, but over time that part of our mind can also relax into a more spacious way of being.
Scientists have been researching which components of meditation enhance our health and our relationships with each other for the last couple of decades.
Dan Siegel summarises these as 'our capacity to focus our attention, open our awareness and generate a kind intention'. The first two components transfer clearly to the receptive element of our listening.
What if we go the extra mile and generate a kind intention towards each other? Imagine choosing to see the best in everyone you listen to today, or to always include appreciation in your feedback. What might be the repercussions of starting to consciously and positively influence our connections in these ways?
Listening can be deeply nourishing all round.
When we are conscious of our motivation to listen, and can pair active listening skills with its counterpart of receptive listening practice our capacity for quality listening soars. By taking care of ourselves and relaxing into the shared field of attention, we can sustain a higher quality of listening for much longer, and in much more challenging listening situations. When we learn to listen in this way, we offer a calmer, deeper and more nourishing experience, for the person we are listening to and for ourselves.
The art of listening well can take a lifetime to accomplish. It not only involves learning new skills and practices, but also calls for us to unpick less than helpful habitual patterns that we have developed.
It invites us into deeper relationship with each other, commits us to self care and invites us into a new paradigm where 'I' am listening to 'you' morphs into 'we' are listening together.
Deep listening is a much needed response to our zeitgeist of accelerated communication, growing pressure and polarised opinion, and we owe it to ourselves and others to dedicate time, energy and attention to it..
For bitesize suggestions to develop your listening skills please see my IG channel
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To register your interest in attending a future training in receptive listening please email firstname.lastname@example.org