The Power of Listening

The Power of Listening

by Wendy Searle

One of my life’s most restorative moments happened in the middle of my biggest heartbreak. My husband had just ended our 15-year relationship and, with no job and three kids, I was staring into a maw of uncertainty.

In this ocean of raging discombobulation, my friend Pip threw me a lifeline. My dear friend’s gift, even better than her chicken soup, was in listening.

Pip listened. She didn’t offer me advice or reassurance. She sat with me, quietly, patiently. If she had somewhere else to go that day, she never let me know. She stayed with me through a long afternoon, into the chill of an April evening. Pip gave me a valuable skill that still serves me well, ten years later. The power of listening without judgement.

I host PodcastOne’s Home Truths podcast where everyday Australians share their extraordinary life stories with me. These quiet heroes tell me of adventures and adversities and of their courage in facing them. They have helped me see that my divorce released me, allowing my own story to evolve unfettered by a relationship that wasn’t working for either of us.

The stories I’m told in Home Truths have struck a chord with listeners, not because of me, but because I offer people the space to be heard. Listeners have told me that it makes them feel as if they have been invited into a private room where an important story from an everyday person is being told.

I use the listening skills Pip gifted to me and which I have used as the foundation for my career. They have allowed me to build authentic connections with others and strip away the veneer that inhibits the growth of trust, the foundation stone in any valuable relationship, personal or professional.

When I sit with another, tune out the noise and turn into the now, it only takes a few minutes to build rapport, to participate in honest communication, whether it’s with a client, colleague, partner or friend.

I want to share with you five skills that I use to listen to build relationships of trust and mutual respect across my life. 

1. Be here now.

By using mindfulness skills, you can set the stage for true engagement. First, remove any obvious distractions. Close the door and silence your phone. Allow enough time. Focus on your breath and relax your shoulders. Deliberately empty your mind of what you have brought with you or awaits you. Pause before speaking and truly look at the other person, meeting their eye. By removing distractions, you will more easily give the other person your full attention peacefully. And you can create a safe communication space to build rapport via Zoom or Skype as well as face-to-face.

I recently arrived in complete disarray for an interview.For HomeTruths, I go to the homes of the people featured in the podcast, which meant driving from Sydney to Newcastle. In school holidays, with three children, who I dropped off at our Airbnb with a bucket of KFC.

2. Show appropriate vulnerability.

I have decided in my life that I will try not to present myself as something I’m not. I don’t always get it right, and I am as guilty as the next person of posting to Facebook holiday photos that show the hour on the boat, not the 10 hours at the airport, but overall I try not to airbrush my life too much.

Time after time, this honesty seems to cut through to build a real connection. And I use this lightly, sharing a small truth without harming anyone else in the telling or making the story my story; it’s more an offering of vulnerability, the first step towards trust. An example of this is the first paragraph of this post, where I tell about my divorce without actually talking about my divorce.

It’s a hard balance to get right, and sometimes I feel that I have exposed too much. And I know that this may feel inappropriate or initially uncomfortable in your professional life, which is why you should show appropriate vulnerability. For example, if you are meeting with someone less senior for a performance appraisal, ask him or her how they are feeling and listen for the answer.

Only respond after truly reflecting on their response. And respond as a person, not some kind of omnipotent other, just because you earn more. Try it. Because how much of your life do you spend in meetings which echo the Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel, “People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening?” Isn’t your time more precious than that? (continued page 21)

3. Be calmly attentive.

No matter what is raging outside, any time you have with another one-on-one is a chance to build communication and engagement. Be comfortable and sit appropriately close; don’t be distanced by the width of a desk which establishes a power relationship.

Be open-minded and don’t allow your subconscious to finish the story. You may think you are discreet, but your non-verbal communications will give you away. Let a story unfold at its own pace, and there is no need for you to provide any magical solution.

Two months ago I hosted an event on mens’ mental health with Peter Shmigel, ex-CEO of Lifeline Australia and world champion surfer Tom Carroll. The room was electric with the energy of these two men. Both offered the same hard-won advice on how to help people who are considering self-harm, including suicide, which is the biggest killer of Australian men aged 15 – 44. Pete and Tom told the audience that listening is the best thing we can do.

Without judgement. Without trying to cheer someone up. Just pull up a chair and settle in.

4. Don’t interrupt.

The craft of listening includes accepting that the first step in helping someone is gaining their trust, and listening is the foundation stone on building solutions. We think and speak at different speeds, and to communicate effectively, you have to meet the rhythm of the other person, to find their beat and match it.

When I interview a person for Home Truths, I write two things on my wrist as my crib notes. The first is “ask the question”. This means two things. The first is to keep a question simple and direct, don’t wrap it in a convoluted story, and the second is don’t be afraid to ask big questions.

My second crib note to myself is “shhh”. I never miss an opportunity to say nothing. A pause by someone gives them a chance to reflect and gather their thoughts. You should listen through it.And if you truly want to say something, pause first and consider the purpose of your comment. If it’s to provide clarity or to bring the communication back on track, that’s great.

But wait for the speaker to pause, and tell them you want to understand or paraphrase your understanding. This ensures that you’ve understood the most salient points and lets the other person know that you’ve received and understood their message.

5. Be grateful for the experience.

The story you are hearing is not yours, and there is no need to carry sadness or pain away with you. You can empathise with another, and feel grateful for the experience. But it serves no one if you feel burdened. Focus on the connection built, and if you think the other person needs professional advice or support, absolutely tell them. Their story is not your problem to solve. Listening is the gift you offer.

In Home Truths, I hear stories of people’s experiences that are often extremely challenging, though the stories are ultimately uplifting. I don’t feel traumatised by what I have been told. Rather, I feel grateful that I have been entrusted to share that story forward, and that I am simply a conduit for a story that passes from the teller to the ultimate listener, you, as a member of the public.

My PodcastOne producer, Jen Goggin, was at a conference when another woman sought her out, with tears in her eyes. She told Jen that listening to the stories on Home Truths had helped her on her own journey. Jen spends hours editing each episode. This woman’s praise validated our efforts more than any five-star online review ever could, though we appreciate those as well!

Wendy Searle

Wendy Searle

Journalist and PodcastOne Host

You can find Wendy at HomeTruths  

and on Instagram.