Posted by: paulkonasewich | August 5, 2009

We’ve moved

We just moved our website to our own server, after a couple of great years on wordpress.com. We’re working on making the transition as smooth as possible.

If you happened upon this website, please visit us at our new home at http://supportivelistening.org.

BTW, if you are subscribed to our RSS feed, please visit the new website to resubscribe.

best regards,

Paul.

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Posted by: paulkonasewich | August 1, 2009

Listening and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

pan_2006_08After years of searching for a place to do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, last year I finally found one—Peninsula Jiu Jitsu in Foster City. From the minute I walked in the door, I was warmly welcomed. And in the first week, it became very clear that this was a place that emphasized a collaborative approach to learning.

From what I hear, in many gyms the new guys just get “pummeled on,” so to speak, until they either get good enough or they leave. But Peninsula is really different. The more experienced guys take a certain pride in showing the new people how things are done. I think this comes straight from Marco, who founded the gym– it’s learning as a group effort.

And so perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve found my listening skills to be extremely valuable in this type of a learning environment. Here there are very experienced practitioners who are eager to share their knowledge about the sport and who want to see me improve.

Yet there are a number of ways that I could screw this up. One way is simply by not paying enough attention while they are explaining something to me. What I find is that by giving my full attention to a purple belt who is telling me all about how to “pass the guard” I’m showing him respect and I’m also encouraging him to tell me more.

Another way I could screw it up is by being argumentative about what I’m being told. I could be skeptical in terms of what actually works. Instead, I assume that he’s telling me this for a good reason, I assume that it’s worked for him before, and I get very curious to really understand what’s being explained to me. And again this respect has a magical effect in that the senior guys in the gym who like to explain things are willing to help me out time and time again.

Just today I was working with Eric, who was recently promoted to purple belt, and he was doing a fantastic job of teaching me some of the basics. I realized partway through that I was actually using the WIG in interacting with him. He would explain something for a minute or two, and then I’d repeat back to him what I understood about it. And sometimes I was right on the mark, and sometimes he would further refine what I’d said, so that I really understood the core of it.

I have to admit that I’m just thrilled to see that my work on Supportive Listening is showing results in other areas of my life.

Posted by: paulkonasewich | July 8, 2009

The Tipping Point of Listening

sm-scale-scxhu-875412-c-stephen-staceyIn great Supportive Listening conversations, there is often a special moment that I call “the tipping point of listening.” This is the point in the conversation when the speaker really gets it, that I’m creating space for them to solve the problem, and that I’m just not going to jump in with suggestions. And that’s the point when the speaker’s problem solving energy really gets going. I had a powerful experience around this just the other day.

So there I am doing Supportive Listening for a colleague who wants to talk about a business challenge he’s facing around the topic of “focus.” Our conversation begins, he lays out the details around his challenge with focus, and then he turns to me and says “So Paul, how do I deal with this?”

Now consider how easy it would be for me as a listener to slip into the role of coach and start guiding the conversation, or to slip into the role of consultant, and tell him what to do.

But I’m very clear here that I see the potential for listening to work its magic in helping my colleague discover his own great insights. It’s a possibility that is often not explored, I believe to the detriment of the speaker.

And so with that conviction around the power of listening, I make a conscious decision not to coach, not to consult, but just to listen. I’m there to be a faithful Supportive Listener, thus giving him the space to take the lead.

I count off a few silent breaths, waiting to see if he’s going to continue talking. But he doesn’t and so I recount his challenge with a WIG. But to my brief recounting of what he’s said, he quickly shoots back “OK, so what do I do?!”

Aha, so he’s pressing me to weigh in with an opinion, to put me in the role of problem solver! But I firmly believe in him, that he’s up to this challenge. Plus experience tells me that once I “grab the microphone” and give him even a bit of advice, it’s hard to hand that microphone back to him, and get his problem solving energy going again.

So instead of answering his query, I bounce the question back to him, “Yeah, what DO you do?” And then I wait.

In that moment the shift happens. He takes a deep breath and says “Well I do a lot of things! Let me give you an example…” and then he’s off and running, analyzing his own situation, now that we’ve established that he’s going to be the problem solver. We’ve crossed the tipping point of listening.

And from that point on, it’s quite easy to do Supportive Listening for him. I just pay close attention to what he says, I offer him a WIG when he’s done, and then he thinks of something new and starts talking again. This rhythm opens up new tracks of thinking for him, and he proceeds to identify the key factors that are playing into his issue around “focus.”

Afterward, when I asked him what he’d gotten from our conversation, he said something interesting. Even though he’d been somewhat aware of these factors before, he hadn’t realized how central they were to the challenges he’s been facing.

I am often amazed at how well Supportive Listening works, without guiding or directing, in helping people to get at the heart of their challenge. Thus I’d like to encourage you to explore this less trodden path, of the role of the committed listener. And if you can stay there long enough, you may reach that magical point in the conversation, where the speaker firmly takes the lead and their insights start to flow. This is the tipping point of listening.

Posted by: eranmagen | July 8, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

yinyangSupportive Listening can bring out the beautiful and joyous in people. Although we tend to think about Supportive Listening as something we “do” when others are upset or unhappy, this way of relating to others aims, first and foremost, to help them explore, express, and accept themselves – the good, the bad, and the beautiful.

Many of us are willing to accept the good in us only half-heartedly. I know many people who automatically respond to any compliment directed at them by denying its truth (“no, really, it only looks like I know what I’m doing”), or minimizing their accomplishment (“thanks, yeah, I guess I just got lucky, but I’m sure it won’t go this well next time.”).

Supportive Listening allows people to come into contact with what they see as the bad in themselves, without having to fear that they would lose the warm acceptance of the Supportive Listener. In time, people can come to accept the so-called “bad parts” of their experiences, at first by acknowledging their existence (“I guess I just get really jealous sometimes”), and later by learning to see their experiences in a more multi-faceted way (“come to think of it, I usually feel really jealous only when I’m tired”).

But the crown achievement of Supportive Listening is when people learn to see the beautiful in themselves, or experiences they have had. I recently met someone at a social event, and we had a nice conversation. As our conversation progressed, I naturally fell into a “Supportive Listening mode,” although my new friend did not express any particular distress. Minutes later, I found myself listening to him as he searched for words to describe a life-changing experience he’s had years ago, which he hesitatingly described as “mystical,” during which he felt that he was connected to the whole world around him, and felt a deep peace and calmness.

It was a beautiful story to hear. Supporting him as he reconstructed the experience, fitting it with words and meaning, I felt as though I had helped him in brushing off the dust from a beautiful part of him, which he was now able to appreciate and enjoy more deeply than before.

I encourage You to experiment with offering Supportive Listening even in regular conversations. Put your focus on the other person and on your acceptance of them, be curious and accepting of their experience and their story, and see what happens. You just might experience beauty.

Posted by: paulkonasewich | June 22, 2009

Would you know if you’re a good listener?

t-lunchtalk-sxchu-325656-c-Manny-ProebsterI was at a conference this weekend, and met two people who have been on my mind.

One of them, Lucía, was a gracious and skilled listener. She really took in what I was saying, was curious about the ideas, was really present. We had a real, two-way conversation.

And the other, Marc, was a passionate talker. He’s the sort of person you might find on one of those CNN debate shows, hurling one-liners across the table. That interaction was interesting, but mostly one-way, with me as the audience.

But here’s the strange thing: Lucía, whom I thought was a pretty good listener, said “I’m not a good listener—I need to take your workshop.”

Whereas, Marc, who demonstrated little interest in listening, said, among other things, “Listening? Oh I already do that.”

 And this was by no means an isolated experience. What I’m finding is that the people who say “I’m not a good listener” generally demonstrate strong listening skills in that very conversation.

I don’t know if it’s just modesty that leads them to claim that they aren’t good listeners, or if they genuinely see opportunities to improve. My hunch is that it’s the latter—above average listeners have the perspective to see that being an even better listener is possible and desirable.

 And on the flipside, I often find that those who proclaim to be great listeners tell me that they have no need to improve–all the while demonstrating poor listening skills in the conversation. It’s like the activity of listening just doesn’t hold much value for them—but they still consider themselves good at it.

 Where that leaves me is making a conscious decision to focus my efforts on working with those who naturally see the value of listening, connection, and relationships. Working with the strength in the community, if you will.

Posted by: eranmagen | May 10, 2009

Let Them Hurt

My grandmother recently moved to a senior citizens home, and is not very happy about it. She misses her old apartment (where she lived for the past 2,000 years), she misses knowing that her old apartment exists as it used to (it was renovated by the people who live there now), she misses her autonomy, and having a gas stove.

She’s doing okay; she’s just not happy.

I visited her a little while ago, together with a few other family members. When, at some point, she mentioned how much she misses her old apartment and how unhappy she occasionally feels, one family member jumped in: “Well, You have to realize, You’re getting older, and You can’t do things as well as You used to. It’s not safe for You to live alone. Your apartment is gone now – there’s really nothing that can be done about it. You are not in a position to take care of yourself, and-”

I had to intervene.* I could see my grandmother growing more upset, feeling alone in her misery. I stopped the person who was speaking, quite forcefully, relative to me (“enough! There’s no need to twist the knife. Really”)and then turned to my grandmother and said “You really miss your old place, huh?”

She relaxed. A tiny, precarious smile flickered across her mouth. And she said “yes.” Then she straightened up, said “but this is how things are now, and I must take it as it comes.”

This, to me, is such a clear example of the danger that lies in trying to take someone’s pain away too quickly. My grandmother, for better or worse, has most of her mental faculties left intact. She knew what her situation is, and how she got there. She didn’t need explaining. She needed sympathy, someone who would understand how she feels and accept it, without trying to change it.

It was that simple.

When someone tells You about the pain they’re experiencing, don’t rush in to fix it. Let them hurt. It may feel strange, it may be counter-intuitive. Do this as an experiment. Try being present to their pain, acknowledging it and WIGing it back at them. Who knows. You might just help them feel better by not trying so hard.

____

* Was I jumping in because I couldn’t bear the distress I thought I could see? The intensity of my speech to my family member suggests that this may have happened; be that as it may, I still feel good about intervening, though I wish I were gentler with the other person

Posted by: paulkonasewich | May 10, 2009

“Active Silence”

SilenceSeveral of my good friends have been going through challenging times, which means I’ve been doing a lot of Supportive Listening lately. And in my listening I’ve started to take a much more active stance towards the moments of silence that invariably happen.

But what is “active silence?” Consider this scenario: There you are, listening to someone talk through a challenge. And then they stop talking. What now? Do you ask a question? Share a WIG? Or just wait?

It’s easy to consider silence in conversations as being of little value. It can seem as if nothing is happening, as if it’s a time when as a listener you can just tune out while you wait for the speaker.

But I think that tuning out compromises the value of silence, for one simple reason.  Great Supportive Listening conversations are powered by the connection between the two people.  And that connection matters even when nobody is talking, and perhaps even especially when nobody is talking.

I’ve seen an active, connected silence give birth to many good things.

For one, when I sit in active silence with someone who has just expressed a worry, it often helps them to digest that worry and get more comfortable with it.  I don’t know what’s going on, but the speaker seems to take a step forward.

Another outcome from an active silence is the joy of the unexpected—a surprising new insight that seems to come out of nowhere. Sometimes the longer silences are the ones that yield these moments of creativity. I wonder if this happens because when one sits in silence for long enough, without the usual train of thought or interruption, it creates space for really new ideas to come up—the kind of ideas that move people in new directions.

Now how does one stay “active” during the silence in a conversation? Here’s what works for me.

First off, I handle my own discomfort with the silence, the part where I’m thinking, “Should I be saying something?” I handle it by taking three conscious breaths, which calms me down and allows some time to pass. By that time, the speaker will have either started talking again, or have given me clues through their body language as to what they need.

Secondly, I find that consciously reminding myself of the value of the silence really does help. Here’s how I do it: when I’m sitting in that silence, I’ll say to myself “Just wait, she’s still working, let her work,” while I make a conscious effort to remain present, connected, and quiet. I’ve seen so many people benefit from these active silences that I now get excited when it happens, wondering what surprises await on the other side of the silence.

Thirdly, I’ve come to trust that it’s OK to wait a little too long in silence. I’ve observed that when the speaker needs me to say something, they’ll let me know. And that even if the silence that goes on too long and they change the subject, I can still invite them to come back to the topic with a simple WIG.  And if they actually did have more to say about it, they will.

There is great potential for silence when it is properly appreciated.  Rather than meaning that something is wrong, silence can be good news. It can mean that difficult feelings are being processed and moved through. It can mean that surprising new insights are about to show up.

A key to having a valuable Supportive Listening conversation, whether there is a lot of talking or a lot of silence, is tending to the connection. Over the next few days, push a little on maintaining that connection through the silences, and see what it does to your conversations.

Paul

BTW, for more on silence, check out my blog entry Three Kinds of Silence.

Posted by: paulkonasewich | March 5, 2009

WAIT! Don’t close that door.

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So there I am, the Supportive Listener, doing the listening thing. And it’s working. My dear friend is exploring her challenge, her mind is working, the ideas are flowing. And then it happens. She says to me, very earnestly, “So Paul, what should I do?”

Wow, this is tempting. I love to help people, and I have been known to blurt out advice. But this time is different—I’m doing a good job of just listening, of not jumping in. Ah, finally I’m being asked for advice. Great! So I’m ready to roll. They asked me for it, right?

WAIT! Although in one way it’s true: words did come out of my friend’s mouth that sounded an awful lot like a direct request for advice. But let’s be a little smarter about this. “What  should I do?”often has a much more important meaning than “give me advice”—it can be a doorway to great thinking.

That’s right, when the speaker says “What should I do?” they are standing right on the doorway of their own insight. The great ideas are just about to flow out of them. It’s about to happen.

But here’s the trick: if I answer that question, that apparent request for advice, I am *slamming* that door of insight shut. The minute I give advice, my friend goes into “receiving” mode, and their mind shifts gears. The momentum shifts from “her working towards the solution” to “me solving it.” All of those great ideas she was about to uncover are quietly tucked away. Now she’s just following along, as I generate the ideas, I lead the way.

What I propose to you is this: when the speaker is in charge, the results are more fruitful and more empowering. It’s the “best case scenario” when someone solves their own problem. So why not give that process a chance?

Instead of answering your friend’s oh so tempting “What should I do?” question, do this: bounce it back to them. It takes practice to develop your own style; my favorite way is a very simple “I dunno, what’s your take?

A shocking (shocking!) number of times, that’s all it takes for the speaker to be off and running, opening that door of insight and discovering a surprising number of insights. After this happens, I always think “WOW am I glad I didn’t answer that.”

Now sometimes my “quick bounce back” line of “what’s your take?” doesn’t work. I get “I don’t know, that’s why I asked you.” And for this I have a backup approach that often does the trick: “Well, what are your options?” And they are off and running again.

You can imagine that this back and forth could go on for quite some time: my friend thinking through their challenge, discovering insights, coming up with solutions and then handing leadership of the exploration back to me. And I just keep giving it back to them, in as neutral a way as I can. And they keep working. It’s really neat.

The key idea is this: your friend, your partner, your child, this person who you’re listening for has huge potential within them to find great insight and solutions to their own problems. Rather than taking charge and giving advice, hold open that door of insight for them. Bounce that “What should I do?” question back to them. And when they amaze you with their solutions, smile—you helped make that happen.

— Paul.

 ©2008-2009 Supportive Listening

Posted by: paulkonasewich | February 9, 2009

What we *don’t* mean by “listen”

sxc-hu-obey-hand-498917-c-miguel-ugaldeWhen I tell people that I teach listening, they are often surprised. Some people ask “Can that be taught?” I like to reply “I sure hope so,” with a smile.

But then as the discussion progresses, I realize that the word “listening” means very different things to different people.

For Part I of this article, I’ll consider two of the common interpretations that are *not* what the “listening” in Supportive Listening stand for.

Supportive Listening is not about obedience.

I was at the optometrist and upon hearing that I teach listening, she said “I wish I could teach my son to listen. He never listens to anything that I say.” I asked for more detail (of course) and she went on to say that she’ll tell her five year old son to brush his teeth, and he’ll ignore her and keep playing his video game.

“Do you think he hears you?” I asked.

“Oh yes, he hears me.”

OK so the issue here isn’t about a hearing problem, it’s about obedience—along the lines of “You’d better listen to me or there’s going to be trouble!” This is using the term “listening” in the context of one person holding power over another.

When we say “Supportive Listening,” this isn’t what we mean. :) I can be a Supportive Listener, you can make your request, I can respect that that’s your view, and yet I can still have my own point of view. Just because I hear, understand, and accept what you’re saying, it doesn’t I have to obey it.

Supportive Listening is not about agreement.

So I’m talking with “A,” well more accurately I’m having a “heated discussion” with “A,” and she declares “You’re not listening to me!”

Aha, a challenge! (Yes, I’ll admit, I was contributing to the heat.) And so I repeat back to her exactly what she just said, and I smugly say “Did I get that right?”

And she replies, “Yes but that’s what I don’t understand! If you heard what I said, why are we still arguing?”

Ahh, and therein lies another definition for listening. That if I’m actually listening to you, listening carefully, and really hearing you, then I’ll agree with you. Right?

Nope.

I remember being in an energetic conversation with a good friend many years ago, on the topic of spirituality. I kept trying to explain something to her, but she just wasn’t getting it, or so I thought.

Finally she stopped, eloquently summarized what I’d said, checked to see that she’d understood (she had) and then patiently explained that her views were different. Ahh.

So she’d listened very competently—she just didn’t agree. From this experience I came to understand a common listening fallacy that goes like this:

“If you only understood my point of view, then you’d agree that it’s the right one.”

Nope.

Supportive Listening is great because it gives me the chance to listen really carefully to you, accept your point of view as yours, and still be my own, perfectly acceptable, person—a person who has a different view than you. It’s “live and let live.”

The beauty here is that with Supportive Listening, you can be understood and respected without us having to agree on whom or what is “right.”

Just because I hear, understand, and accept doesn’t mean that I agree.


There you have it: Supportive Listening is about neither obedience nor agreement. So then what *is* Supportive Listening about? I’ll cover that in my next article.

2angryTrue emotional connection is one of the key ingredients of good listening.

Unfortunately, when we come into emotional contact with someone who is upset, the experience can be difficult for us: We put forth our best Supportive Listening attitude, we try to relate to the other’s experience and to understand what it must like to be them – and we find that we are becoming upset ourselves, just like the person we are listening to. I can’t believe they did that to his car! How dare they talk about her like that? It’s just heartbreaking that he lost everything…

Many people intuitively assume that we provide the best support by displaying, and even experiencing, the same emotions as the person we are talking with. The reasoning is something like: This way they’ll know I’m on their side, and will feel better. He is sad? I’ll be sad as well. She’s annoyed? I’ll be annoyed too. These are examples of taking on another person’s emotions – a state that Murray Bowen termed “Emotional Fusion.”

Although this approach makes intuitive sense, it leads to two problematic consequences, which diminish our ability to provide effective support:

(1) Being upset is an emotionally intense state, and will drain us before long. If we know that whenever we talk to somebody who is angry (or sad, or afraid) we become angry (or sad, or afraid), we will begin avoiding these conversations, and provide less support overall.

(2) Ironically, the person we are supporting may realize that he is making us upset and. If he is sensitive enough, he may actually self-censure so as not to upset us too much.This, of course, is the exact opposite of the result we are hoping to achieve when providing support – namely, providing the other person with a space to express himself and process his experience in a safe, accepting space.

Does this mean it would be better if we remained aloof and unconcerned with the other person’s emotions? Such lack of connection may be unpleasant for us, and will certainly do little to comfort another. If You are reading this, You probably care about other people, and wish to alleviate their suffering as much as You can. But if taking on the other person’s emotions is unhelpful, and remaining aloof and uncaring is also unhelpful, what is left for us to do?

What we can do is try our best to remain engaged, caring, and connected, without taking on the other person’s emotions – to adopt a stance that Murray Bowen called “Differentiation.” Being differentiated is not the same as being uncaring, nor does it mean being cold. It means being able to recognize another’s emotions as his own, while maintaining our own emotional balance.

Carl Rogers defined “Accurate Empathy” as the ability to “…sense the [other’s] private world as if it were your own, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ quality.” This ability to maintain this frame of mind, to interact with a distressed person without taking on his distress, even while caring deeply about his distress, is a fundamental skill that lies at the core of Supportive Listening.

– Eran

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