Thursday 1 December 2022

Unhelpful advice?

Time and again, when people are talking about the importance of listening (a proposition I have a lot of time for) they say that we should also listen for what is not being said.

I have always found that to be very unhelpful advice: because the answer is practically infinite. I stored it with other unhelpful injunctions, such as 'Never point a gun' (how will you ever hit a target?) and 'keep a straight bat' (as if you could bend a cricket bat...). 

On reflection, I realise that my misunderstanding of each of these bits of wisdom is of a slightly different order. 'Never point a gun' is simply a contraction of the very good advice never to point a gun at a person (unless you intend to shoot him); whereas 'keep a straight bat' is a slightly inaccurate way of saying 'keep your bat vertical' - also good advice in its own place.

But where was I going wrong with 'listen for what is not being said'? I think it was again being over-literal in my treatment of the actual words, and insufficiently curious about what people meant by them. What I suspect people are getting at is a few different things, all of which may be worthy of attention.

One is 'what category of thing is not being discussed (that one might reasonably expect to be discussed in this context)?' For example, is someone only talking about facts, and logic, in a context where one might expect emotions to be mentioned? Is someone only talking about problems, and the past, when it might be appropriate to think about solutions, and the future? Is someone only talking about other people's responsibility for an issue, when it might be reasonable to consider their own?

A second aspect of this, is what is being communicated but not said out loud. That is, what messages are being transmitted by body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, levels of energy and so on, over and above the words that the person is saying. (Don't get me started on that more that 90% of communication is non-verbal rubbish, though!...). 

And a third thing to consider is what an individual's behaviour says, over time. Consider someone who assumes a cynical stance in dialogue, but in practice is very caring and compassionate; or conversely, someone who declares their commitment, but consistently turns up late and under-delivers.

So yes, it is important to attend to what is not being said, but is being communicated; and in the context of coaching, for example, it can be valuable to raise that as a topic for consideration.  We do need to be careful, however, that we are not projecting our stuff onto the person we are coaching: so owning it as ours is important. 

In a Gestalt-style of session we might mention what we are noticing in ourself in response to what they are saying (self-as-tool); or in a Thinking Environment session, we might offer a reflection under the general heading of Information (once people have thought as far as they can by themselves, of course).

But in all cases, we should explore these as issues to be curious (and open-minded) about, rather than assume that we have seen the truth that the other is (deliberately or inadvertently) not discussing.  As ever, humility is a very good starting point!


With thanks to Joel Moysuh and Yogendra Singh  for sharing their photos on Unsplash

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