Most of the time in our everyday conversations we listen to respond, not to understand. It seems to be the default mode for the majority of people, but it is not the type of listening that we need during dialogue. We need to abandon our normal habits, focus on the speaker and maintain a sense of curiosity. Usually we are so keen to get our point of view across that we take the first opportunity to jump in and contribute what we see as our contribution to keep the conversation going.

Something magical happens when we suspend our normal way of listening, give the speaker our full intention and wait until they have fully shared their experience or ideas. Relieving the speaker of the need to cram what they want to say into a limited amount of time frees them to express themselves at a comfortable pace in the knowledge that they are not going to be cut short because they will be interrupted or the conversation will get diverted if the pause.

Providing this sense of space to speak means that the speaker has a chance to hear what they are saying. It is not uncommon for the speaker to say things like “as I heard myself saying that I realised…”. The speaker will often change what they say after they have spoken realising that what they said is not what they meant. The space allows a speaker time to refine their views and perspectives.

In a group situation, the use of a talking piece encourages this sort of listening as only the person with the talking piece speaks. Where the dialogue is between two individuals, how to encourage this type of listening is helped by discussing it as part of the preparation stage.

Listener as editor

An idea from the Book of Life project, is the listener acting like an editor. The analogy is from the world of publishing and based on the role of an editor in the writing and publishing process. A key aspect of editing is to “bringing out a range of underlying intentions which have been threatened by digressions, hesitations, losses of confidence and lapses of attention. The editor doesn’t change the author into someone else: they help them to become who they really are. The same process is at work with a good listener. They too know that some of what a speaker is saying doesn’t accurately reflect what they truly mean.” The idea is explained more fully in this article.