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  • Writer's pictureHollie

Really Listening

I was having lunch with a friend recently, who I had not seen in quite some time, and I was so excited to catch up and talk about our recent adventures in life. When you’ve spent significant time apart, there’s always so much to share. There was one story in particular that I was dying to tell - a hilarious encounter with a mutual friend that had, at the time, left me in absolute tears. But, when I was about to reach the peak of my little anecdote, they glanced at the notification which popped up on their phone, and then moved to unlock the screen. Having suddenly lost enthusiasm and confidence in my sense of humour, I stopped talking, and decided to change the subject - the moment had passed. 

Although I’m sure no ill was intended, and none was taken, I couldn’t help but connect the interaction with something that I had been listening to just days prior - a podcast with world renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel and comedian Trevor Noah. It was a live conversation on the similarities between being a comic and a therapist, and how both roles require attunement to the energy of their audience. Trevor had asked Esther for advice on how to be a better listener, and her response was eye opening. 

(Click the picture to watch/listen to the whole interview on YouTube)

You don't just listen with your ears. You listen with your voice, you listen with your eyes, you listen with your smile, you listen with the hands. You listen as you walk closer to the person. The whole body listens.

The quality of the listening is what will shape what the speaker will tell, how much, how open, how deep. Meaning, listening is not just the passive recipient. Listening shapes the speaker. Listening, real listening, is curiosity.

She’s absolutely correct, and what a significant insight. In the context of my lunch outing, my friend’s distraction had caused me to change my mind about how much I was willing to share. The story I had wanted to tell was a ‘bid for connection’ - a term that the famous relationship researchers, John and Julie Gottman, coined to describe a kind of request for attention and acknowledgement. Bids can be big or small, verbal or nonverbal. They might be expressed by a question, a gesture, an affectionate touch, or a story. They say “Hey! I want to share a part of myself with you - I want to connect”. 

In their research, the Gottmans found that people respond to bids in 3 ways. They can turn towards, away from, or against. When you turn towards a bid, you respond with curiosity, with interest - and you are signalling to the other person that they are important to you, even if what they are talking about isn’t particularly enthralling. When we turn away from bids, or against them, we signal the opposite. 

What’s interesting is that in one of their studies of newlyweds, they found that couples who ‘remained married had turned towards their partner’s bids 86% of the time, while those who ended up in divorce had accepted bids only 33% of the time’. A tendency to turn towards your partner, to really listen, forms the basis of trust, meaningful connection, and intimacy. 

None of us are perfect at accepting all of the bids we receive, and in the case of my friend, fortunately this interaction was a deviation from their norm (which is why I can let it slide and try to offer the most generous interpretation - maybe they were feeling unwell or stressed!) But, having my bid turned away shows that Esther was right. Listening, and hearing, are two completely different things. It’s not about whether you take in the information or not, it’s about acknowledging the other person so that they do not feel alone in wanting to connect and share themselves with you. When we listen, all senses are engaged; we are present, attentive, and receptive to each other. Listening is not a passive act but a dynamic exchange that influences what and how much will be shared. 

One more thing stood out to me during Esther’s talk with Trevor. She said “If you listen with expectations in advance of what you should hear, you're not listening.  If you're listening with the confirmation bias to get evidence for that which you have already made up your mind about, you're not really listening. Listening is a certain kind of engagement with the unknown - it's being completely available to what the other person is telling you.” 

How might our relationships benefit if we strive to fully listen not only with our ears, but with open hearts and minds, as well? When we respond to bids by ‘turning towards’, instead of away, we gain the opportunity to hear and learn so much more. I wonder where that kind of curiosity might lead?


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