3 ways listening sessions support our thriving
First, why do listening sessions?
In our modern world, it can be easy to lose sight of what we really want, need, and care about. Anyone who sincerely plans to thrive should include “continually deepen self-knowledge” on their permanent to-do list. It is essential to be on the lookout for new and relevant information within us. We have to counterbalance the constant barrage of information and influences that can lead us to feel disconnected from ourselves and what makes life uniquely meaningful for us.
Now, what are listening sessions?
Listening sessions are a dedicated space and time to connect with ourselves and another person, to be heard and to listen in equal turns.
During listening sessions, when it is your turn to be heard, you choose:
1) your topic
2) how you want to be listened to
3) the kind of response you want – – if any!
Listening sessions can be used for a wide variety of purposes.
Here is an example of a listening session:
Sarah has a job interview tomorrow and wants to practice answering a question she knows will be asked. She plans to tell a story about her previous work experience as part of her answer. Sarah has a few stories in mind and hasn’t chosen which one to use yet. She wants her listening partner of five years, Liz, to listen silently and with very little facial response (because Sarah has been warned that’s how the people on the hiring committee act while you speak!) and then she wants Liz to tell her which of her stories felt most alive and best illustrated how she is well-suited for the job. By the end of her turn Sarah knows which story she will use and feels ready to speak to the poker faced hiring committee the next day.
For her turn, Liz chooses to talk through her priorities for tomorrow. She can’t do everything on her list and it’s completely up to her which task she takes on first. Liz knows she is a verbal processor and that she will be able to feel which task is most important to her once she reads her whole list out loud. Liz doesn’t need any feedback from Sarah, but she does appreciate that Sarah says ‘mmm’ and ‘uh-huh’ and other non-verbal affirmations. They feel supportive to Liz. By the end of her turn, Liz has chosen her top priority for the next day and has put the rest of the list in order of importance below it.
Like her, Sarah’s friends are busy professionals. When they get together with her they just want to relax and have fun. They don’t want to dive into the nitty gritty of professional decisions – not hers, not their own. Sarah is grateful that Liz is there for her on a weekly basis. Liz is retired and has many friends with plenty of time. However, she knows it is not appropriate to call one of them to say that she doesn’t want to chat or catch up, but that instead she is hoping they will just listen (without interruptions please) while she talks through whatever she wants for 20 minutes. Liz really wants a slice of verbal processor’s paradise. Thank goodness she has her regular time with Sarah every week. They both feel better after every session.
The structure of Listening Sessions is simple, clear, and flexible.
See the graphic showing the structure of a 60-minute listening session. You and your listening partner can easily adapt your sessions to fit your schedules and interests. For example, I have one listening partner that I write with on a weekly basis. We get together, say hello, write silently for between 15 and 20 minutes and then take turns sharing what we wrote. We have gotten to know each other on a profound level through this process.
The location of listening sessions is flexible too. I prefer to do one-on-one listening sessions via phone or video so that things like traffic and where my partner lives (or happens to be traveling to on the day of our session) are never barriers. Liz and Sarah have been doing listening sessions weekly for five years now. They live hundreds of miles away from each other, they have never met in person and they don’t have any plans to meet in person. Listening partners are a unique form of relationship.
The short version of why I personally started doing listening sessions
I have been doing listening sessions since Spring 2020. That’s right, since the early pandemic. I began doing them as part of my multi-faceted attempt to be as holistically well as humanly possible – given the circumstances. At this point, almost three years later, my listening sessions are an enjoyable and reliable way to check in with myself, get things done, workshop ideas, connect with wonderful people and be part of their thriving. It is hard to overstate the importance of listening sessions in my life.
Here are 3 ways that listening sessions support our thriving. Each one is accompanied by a phrase that illustrates a different aspect of the experience of doing them.
#1 “I didn’t know I thought that!”
Listening sessions are an outer infrastructure for exploring our inner space – the true final frontier.
Expressing that a new insight has arrived is commonplace at the end of a listening session. Thinking new thoughts is a predictable result of being listened to according to the work of eminent listening researchers Guy Itzchakov and Avi Kluger. In their Harvard Business Review article entitled The Power of Listening in Helping People Change they summarize one takeaway by saying: “ …we found that speakers who conversed with a good listener reported attitudes that were more complex and less extreme – in other words, not one-sided.”
Do you want more people to have space to be heard so their attitudes can become more complex and less extreme? I suspect you, and the vast majority of people, would say “Yes, I do.”
#2 “It is difficult to feel small while being seen;…”
Listening sessions feel good.
“It is difficult to feel small while being seen; it is difficult not to feel clarity of purpose when our potential is held up and mirrored back at us. This is the gift we can offer one another: our attention and openness, listening and mirroring, seeing one another and seeing the potential lying just outside our perception. By gifting our attention, we can spread presence.”
– Eva Pomeroy, Professor specializing in social innovation and Research Lead at the Presencing Institute
During a listening session you are seen, heard and valued – both when you listen and when you are listened to. That feels good. But, why? Listening sessions feel good because they meet so many of our basic human needs. When you peruse a list of our basic human needs, either casually in your mind or more formally by reading the ‘Needs Inventory’ created by the Center for Nonviolent Communication, you will notice that listening sessions speak to a hefty percentage of them. A few examples are: respect/self-respect, choice, discovery, authenticity, and equality.
The bottom line is that doing listening sessions indicates to primal parts of us that we are well.
#3 “It’s an honor to listen to you – on your terms.”
Listening sessions give us the rare satisfaction of listening to someone how they ask to be listened to.
“To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.”
- Douglas V. Steere, ecumenical Quaker and professor of philosophy
What kind of listening will be of service to you today? Sometimes you may want to be listened to very actively and other times silently. Sometimes you might ask your listening partner to jot down a few notes as you speak your thoughts out loud and sometimes you may want your listening partner’s opinion. Asking for advice during your turn to be heard is fair game. Of course, you have to take what you like and leave the rest, but that’s the same wherever you go. (As an aside, unsolicited advice is not fair game.) In the context of listening sessions, you are the only expert on the best way for you to be heard today.
Remember how Sarah asked Liz to listen silently and with very little facial response because she was practicing speaking to poker faced listeners? A little bit of light role-playing can be helpful sometimes. If you plan to give presentations, it is not a bad idea to practice with a distracted listener who periodically checks their phone and writes a text or two. Or ten. Your listening partner can role play that for you!
We all know the feeling of trying to be there for someone and hoping we have been helpful. You can reach a new level of satisfaction when you know for sure that you have been just the kind of listener that was needed at that moment.
Listening sessions don’t just happen on their own.
Listening sessions have to be planned by two people who both understand what they are and how to do them.
A conversation with a friend is not the same as a listening session. Your friends are not your listening partners, although you can certainly invite a friend to do listening sessions with you. Please note that listening partners cannot replace friends, family, colleagues, therapists, coaches, community members etc. However, none of those relationships do the same things for you that a listening partner does.
Listening sessions provide a space to be seen and heard, to explore new ideas and perspectives, and to connect with our own inner wisdom. I encourage you to explore the power of listening sessions for yourself. Who knows – you might just surprise yourself with what you discover.