Is anyone listening?

It’s amazing how often we assume our requests can be heard while ignoring the capacity of others to listen to what we’re asking.

Some examples:

You made a request by email

If your recipient didn’t read it, didn’t see it, or is overwhelmed by emails and messages, as so many people are, you probably don’t have a listener, no matter how many times you insist that you’ve asked, or how sure you are that they should have read what you said.

You asked at a time when the other person couldn’t pay attention

If they’re busy, anxious, fearful, or distracted then just because you’ve spoken, again, doesn’t mean you have a listener. Even asking someone face to face who is distracted this way does not guarantee they have any capacity to hear you.

You assumed the other person should be interested in what you have to say simply because of who you are

Your seniority, fame, position of authority, sense of yourself as interesting or important are no guarantee anyone is listening. Neither is being a parent or a partner or the boss. Assuming you do is a route to many difficulties.

Can you think of times you might have asked when there’s no listener available, even if the request seems obvious to you? And if so, what might you do to make it possible for people to genuinely hear you?

You might need to think about timing, place, tone and the medium through which you make your request, as well as the mood of your request (sincerity, cynicism, frustration). All of these will have an impact on others’ capacity to listen.

If you find yourself thinking “I’ve asked them time and time again, but nothing ever seems to happen” you might well still be assuming you have a listener when you don’t.

And now you have a place where you can look to resolve your difficulty.

Photo Credit: oiZox Flickr via Compfight cc

Inside and outside

When we divide what’s ‘inside’ us from what’s ‘outside’ as if they were separate from one another we cause ourselves all kinds of difficulty.

In much of our culture we treat working with what’s ‘inside’ as if it’s irrelevant, an indulgence, soft, a waste of time when compared with the hands on world of making, doing, deciding and acting. And we can become equally convinced by the opposite position – that we can’t act until we’ve completely resolved some feeling or inner difficulty, or until we’ve studied and understood a subject from end to end.

But inside and outside are a continuum, different aspects or angles on the same world. It might be most helpful to think of ‘inside’ primarily as that corner of things of which each of us has a particularly special, privileged view – and part of the world nevertheless.

And so it is the case that the way I relate to others is very often the way I’m already relating to parts of myself. And that the way I struggle within myself is the self-same way I struggle with other people.

And it’s often the case that powerful ‘inner’ work is done ‘outside’ – for example by developing skill in relating to others I also develop skill in relating to myself. And that there are many riches to discover about the ‘outside’ world by the much undervalued art of listening attentively and with deep curiosity to the inner experience of others.

Photo Credit: Groume via Compfight cc


It’s one thing to have good intentions about your relationships with others.

You also need good practices to bring them about, repeated actions by which you

pay attention
stay open or defend yourself
share your cares and commitments
choose what to say and what not say
respond to emotions
interpret events as they happen.

When the practices that connect you to one another are neglected, relationships atrophy. At first slowly. And then quickly. Before long nobody can point to the moment when the trouble started nor to what it is that is missing. It’s just that something necessary isn’t there, something that once brought this team, this family, this organisation alive.

And then it becomes easy to judge others and blame them for making things so hard. And to forget that it’s how you’re acting right now that’s keeping things the way they are.

Restoring relationships calls for more than wishful thinking, and certainly for more than blaming others. It requires waking up to the actions that genuinely connect people.

And it requires remembering, a central act of all leadership: recovering the very ways of speaking and listening that once supported you, and bringing them purposefully back into being all over again.

Photo Credit: AvidlyAbide via Compfight cc

What it takes to listen

It’s when we actually listen to another human being that they get to be human too. Listening allows a shift from I-It relating in which the other is essentially an object to us (an irritation, a way to get what I want, a way to feel good about myself) to I-You relating, in which the other gets to be a person.

As Martin Buber points out, I-It relating is essentially a form of It-It relating, since it’s impossible for us to show up as full human beings, even to ourselves, when we are in the midst of making another, or a group of others, into a thing. To relate to another in an I-You way, to listen to them in their fullness, bestows dignity on everyone and opens wide horizons for understanding, compassion, truthfulness, and relationship.

Listening ought to be the easiest thing to do. After all, it requires no complex framework, no technique, no technology. And yet it can be so, so hard.

Most of us have a lot of practicing to do in order to drop our need to be right, to be ‘the one’, to be liked, and to hear only what we want to hear. In order to listen we have to relax our defensiveness, be skilful with the inner attacks of our own inner critic (which is ready to judge us even when there’s no judgement coming from the speaker), get over our wish to control everything, and be willing to welcome whatever we experience. We have to be able to question our own stories and accounts, be open to seeing things in a whole new way, and quiet our inner world sufficiently that what is being said can reach us. And we have to learn how to be in contact with ourselves, a fundamental prerequisite for being in contact with others.

Perhaps all of this is why real listening is so absent in our fearful, impatient culture. And why we could all benefit from doing some inner work if we want to do the vital outer work of listening well to the people around us.

Photography by Justin Wise

Imagining or listening?


Our capacity to imagine allows us to convince ourselves that we know other people – their intentions, their wishes, their inner worlds – when we hardly know them at all. But what we are sure we know can so easily turn out to be simply what we’ve invented. And once we’re sure, we quickly discount evidence to the contrary, reinforcing what we’ve imagined by the selective way in which we look and listen.

We can imagine grudges and resentments, frustrations and slights, judgements and failings, hurts and distances, all without even once checking that they are true. And we can go for years, thinking we know others, when what we know is our story about them.

We do this with lovers and enemies, children and parents, siblings and friends, colleagues and acquaintances. We do this with people whose culture is different from our own, people who live or speak differently from us, people who vote differently.

And all of it feels so real.

There is one simple, and difficult, and necessary way to address the suffering, distance and estrangement that comes from our imaginings, and that is to listen.

Simple, because all of us are able to ask another ‘please, tell me about yourself, tell me what I need to know in order to understand you more fully’. We can do this with loved ones, with work colleagues, and across seemingly unresolvable divides. And we can start today, even if we have never had such a conversation before. All it takes is a willingness to be present and to hear, fully, what the other has to say.

Difficult, because listening in this way means we have to drop our defensiveness, our wish to hear things only on our terms, our fear that we won’t like what is said. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, available, open. This is not the same as giving up our own way of seeing the world or simply doing what another person asks, but it does require allowing ourselves to be changed by the encounter. And this calls on us to summon up reserves of courage and grace and compassion, and to give up being in control all the time.

And necessary because our imaginings so easily act as a wedge between us, prolonging our difficulties, denying us the creative and nourishing possibilities of relationship, and blinding us to suffering as well as to the light and goodness that is in us and all around us if we’ll only look.

Photo Credit: Captured Heart via Compfight cc

We see what we project

So much of our difficulty with relationships comes because we’re projecting onto others what we won’t see in ourselves.

So you get angry and frustrated with a colleague because she’s tentative and hesitant, without seeing that it’s a cause of anger (rather than compassion or curiosity) precisely because you’re angry at all the ways that you are tentative and hesitant.

Or you get furious with your partner for leaving the kitchen table in a mess, not so much because of the mess but because your inner critic is eating into you for all the ways you struggle to keep things neat and in line.

Or you fall in love with another’s creativity and spontaneity, all the while because he reflects back to you all your own creativity and spontaneity with which you’ve lost touch.

Or you feel afraid of an entire group of people because they remind you of what you’re afraid about in yourself.

Our projections – if they illuminate anything about other people at all – leave so much of their true beauty and complexity shrouded in darkness, so that we’re often relating to what we project rather than to who they are.

None of this is so unusual. But it can be a huge source of difficulty and suffering for us. Because behind our projections is another human being, different from us, confounding, surprising, and worthy of both curiosity and wonder. Behind all our projections is another who we are sure we know, but perhaps barely know at all. And behind all our projections are aspects of ourselves – gifts and suffering – that we’re sure are out there in the world, but are in fact right here if we’ll only turn towards them and look.

Photo Credit: Indrik myneur via Compfight cc

Wading together

The kind of tiredness that tells us we don’t want to be here isn’t just a private, personal matter.

How many meetings have you been in when it seems like everyone is tired in this way, but nobody is saying? And how many times have you pushed on, resigned to the pointlessness of the conversation, determined to keep going in the hope that it will help it be over more quickly?

Over a decade ago, before I knew how to work with any of this productively, I was in just such a meeting. On a hot July morning, around a kitchen table, we made a decision to commit the company I co-founded to a multi-year project that would require all of our energy and most of our remaining resources. What I remember most was how the conversation felt – like walking through hot, sticky treacle, or wading through mud. Speaking was difficult, listening was harder, and mustering a ‘yes’ for what we were deciding to do, harder still. And what made it most difficult was the sense that others in the room were experiencing the same heavy tiredness but keeping it quiet. It doesn’t surprise me that the project didn’t work out well.

What I came to see sometime afterwards was how powerful it could have been for any of us to say what we were experiencing, to ask ‘how does it feel, right now, to be having this conversation?’, and then to be curious about the response. We might quickly have learned about the reservations many of us had, about how we were trying to hide them in order to avoid conflict, and about how much life was missing from this particular project that might have been expressed – productively, willingly – in another.

Tiredness like this in a meeting can very often show us that we’re avoiding something, or trying to make a commitment that’s not sincere. And if we’d known this – and acted upon it rather than pretending all was ok – we might have given ourselves a chance to dedicate our efforts over the following two years towards a project that really mattered to us, one that would have brought our our fullest, most whole-hearted commitment and with it, inevitably, our most generous, creative response.

Photo Credit: gothick_matt via Compfight cc


Seen against the ever-present certainties of our lives – we will die, we will grow old, all that we build or create will eventually fall apart – differences between us drop away. We are all the same.

It’s so hard to live consciously with this in mind, to reach out across the space we imagine separates us and be open to one another. So hard to share our fear, our longing, our truest hopes. So hard to stay present long enough to look deeply into the eyes of others, to fall into them, allowing ourselves to know and be known.

Why so difficult? Perhaps because of the shame we necessarily picked up along the way: sharpened every time we had to be told not to do this or that, to be this way or that way in order to fit in with our families or with our culture. Because of our self-doubt and our inner-criticism, which make it so hard to love ourselves fully (a pre-requisite for allowing ourselves to un-self-consciously love others). And because we are afraid.

And so we hold back, always reserving some distance even from those who love us the most, because that way it feels as if we’ll hold on to some measure of safety. Or we judge others, resent them or hate them, turning them into less than human-beings in our hearts, because it makes us feel better for a while.

Even though we know that our deepest connection with one another is precisely that which can save us from the void.

This is the great ethical work, so difficult to do and so necessary, which calls to us – learning the sensitivity to respond and be open to other people, who we take to be so different from us but with whom we share common ancestry, and common destiny.

For we are intimately related.


Photo Credit: Simon_sees via Compfight cc

On thinking

I can think. I really can.

I can think long, and hard, and deeply, about complex problems.

And because I can do it well, I often live as if that’s all there is to do in the world. To think, and to solve, and to work it out. As if this is what I’m here for.

It’s got me a long way. It brings many blessings. But it also creates great difficulty.

When I live in this way, I have a propensity to believe the truth of my thinking, far beyond its actual truthfulness. I try to understand that which cannot be understood in this way – life, or relationships, or what I’m here to do. I think myself away from situations where what’s called for is stepping further in. I seal myself away from the world with a shield of thought. And I judge myself mercilessly for not yet having thought enough or well-enough.

When I live this way, my mind is never still. There is little room for mystery, awe, and wonder. I’m anxious (because no amount of thinking is ever enough). And because of this I’m working, hard, all the time, to work it all out.

And what gets forgotten is that there are other kinds of wisdom upon which I can call. The wisdom of others. The wisdom of my heart. The wisdom of my body. The wisdom of breath. The wisdom of not-knowing, and of un-knowing. The wisdom that can only come from stillness.

And my work, if I am to be fully in life, is letting go enough, surrendering enough, opening enough to let these other kinds of wisdom in.

Photo Credit: Unfurled via Compfight cc

From irritating to mattering

I’m sitting at my desk, opening the mail. It’s been a long day. It still feels to me that there’s much to do.

The phone rings. I answer. It’s Sam. He’s calling to ask my advice on something that matters to him. Actually, it’s something that really matters to me too.

A part of me, deep inside, whispers too much to do, too much to do. It has quite a grip, this part. It twists itself around the inside of my chest, squeezing and pushing. And as I acquiesce and reach for the pile of unopened mail, it loosens, but only just as much as it has to. Ah, that feels better.

For the first few minutes of the call with Sam I’m trying to speak with him while opening the mail. Keep it quiet, the squeezing part says, so that he doesn’t know what you’re doing. I open the envelopes as carefully as I can – which even then is not so quiet – and hope that he won’t notice. At least the gripping has relaxed a little so I can breathe.

The thing is, we’re talking about something that really matters to both of us but, caught up as I am in a narrative of productivity (demanded) and deficiency (mine) I’m hardly present at all.

I feel flat, a bit shaky, urgent.

And I’m not listening. Just pretending to listen.

I feel small, shallow, hollow.

And then I remember myself. I remember all the times I’ve called someone I trusted for help and advice and found, quite astonishingly, someone willing to set aside whatever else they were doing to be, fully, with me.

I put down my envelopes, and I set aside the demands of the critic-part, and I surrender myself to the conversation we’re having.

And all at once I’m in contact with Sam, and in contact with myself, and I find myself deeply touched by the conversation we’re in the midst of, which itself moves from irritating to mattering.

And I am reminded that things mattering is what makes us most human.

Photo Credit: steffens77 via Compfight cc


Over the past two weeks I’ve been involved in an exciting organisational listening project.

The set up: four groups of people from a single organisation, drawn from different teams and many levels of the organisational hierarchy, were given a full half day to just hear one another, in a very simple format inspired by Barry Oshry’s ‘Time Out of Time’ meetings.

Each person, regardless of status and regardless of role, had exactly the same amount of time to speak: eight minutes in our case. And they could say whatever they wanted, as long as it was true and as long as it was offered with sincerity. Politeness (saying what’s expected, what has us fit in and not trouble anything or anyone) was discouraged. And respect (doing others the honour of truthfully saying what you see so they can see it too) encouraged.

Everybody spoke, once. And everybody listened, many times.

As we did this, something very beautiful began to unfold. People told the story, some for the first time, of what it was really like for them to work where they do. Not the public story that’s been told a million times before. Not the official story. But the truer story of hopes and successes, friendships and support, genuine commitment to shared aims, and of many many difficulties. The frustration and overwhelm of emails and busyness. How little they often found themselves genuinely talking to one another. The hiding away and defensiveness. The fear of being judged or criticised. The assumptions and stories they had about each other’s failings, and about each other’s insincerity. The punishing shadow side of high aspirations that can rarely be fully realised.

And, as they talked, a new way of seeing began to emerge – a more systemic view, a more compassionate view, and a more accurate view in which the actions of one could be seen for their effect on the other.

It was a gift to be invited to participate in such a project, in an unusually courageous organisation that’s willing to invest time and resources in looking and talking in this way. In my experience of supporting many organisations over the past decade, such conversations are vanishingly rare.  So often, our wish to hurry on, to get busy, and to not have to encounter one another too deeply turns us away from the simplicity and power of such a conversation for relationship, in which we come to understand each others’ worlds enough to give us a chance to work skilfully together.

And yet conversations like these hold enormous power and possibility, because it’s only when we start to really understand our colleagues as human beings, with worlds of understanding and commitments different to our own, that we have a chance to move beyond simplistic judgements and rigidity into a more fluid, honest kind of relationship in which everyone has the chance to step forward and contribute.

All of that requires a particular kind of listening.

And it turns out that conversations for relationship are not some soft luxury, but the necessary background upon which our requests and promises come to mean something around which we can take coherent action.

Photo Credit: Steve Snodgrass via Compfight cc


A useful, simple, pragmatic definition of sincerity:

“Saying on the outside what’s happening on the inside”

… so that when you ask, promise, declare or inquire those who are listening are offered the possibility of trusting what you have to say

… so that when you speak you are also offered the possibility of trusting what you have to say

… and so we don’t have to spend so much of our time and energy playing games – trying to figure out what each other want, and need, and are really committed to.

Photo Credit: smkybear via Compfight cc

When we don’t listen to the response

As well as missing out ‘yes’ or ‘no’ at great cost to ourselves and others, we can fall into familiar ways of interpreting what others say when we ask for support.

Some of us habitually interpret a yes from someone else as if it were no – leading to endless checking and rechecking, micro-managing and over-supervising, or just doing it ourselves. It erodes trust and soon leads to the people who might have once said a genuine yes holding back.

Others habitually take no to mean yes – forcing or cajoling those around us into begrudgingly or resentfully doing what we’ve asked. This also undoes trust, undermining commitment and the genuine willingness to be of assistance.

We make the same mistake with counter-offers, assuming when the other person offers to do something a little different from what we’ve asked that they mean either no, or that their objections are petty and to be ignored.

This is important because when requests, and their responses, are handled with genuineness and attention it’s possible to build deep bonds of understanding, fluid, generous support – vital in any relationship, family, or team. And when we wilfully misunderstand what is being said we quickly undo all of this.

The antidote to our habitual misunderstanding? Learning to listen to what the other person is actually saying rather than to the familiarity of our own inner story.

Photo Credit: gurdonark via Compfight cc

Two conversations

Two kinds of conversations you can have when you’re in difficulty with others:

The first is an inner conversation.

You talk to yourself, in the privacy of your own thoughts, about their thoughts and motivations. You invent moves and counter-moves, and you weigh your course of action against the imaginary actions of your foe. You’re sure you can read others’ minds. You reassure yourself that you’re right.

In this conversation, you get to decide what’s true, even if it’s far removed from what’s going on.

You may be way off the mark. You may well be keeping the conflict going. But at least you’re in charge.

The second is an outer conversation.

You speak with the other person, asking them what they want, listening deeply and fully. You make requests clearly and completely.

It’s risky. They may say no. You might find out you’ve misunderstood.

And you’re making yourself vulnerable to disappointment, to shame, to your own self-judgement.

In the second conversation you no longer have the monopoly on the truth. But in giving up your rightness, you’re much more likely to discover what is true.

And you open yourself to the possibility of hope, surely more powerful than spiralling further into rigidity, certainty and mistrust?

Photo Credit: Magdalena Roeseler via Compfight cc

The very last time you’ll hear her

What kind of attention would you pay to the person speaking with you right now, if you really understood that this could be the very last time you’ll ever get to hear her? If you understood how temporary, how fleeting, and how unpredictable human life is, despite all our attempts to control and secure and have ourselves feel safe?

If you really understood this, would you allow yourself to tune out, to defend, to hold back from others as much as you do? Or would you do whatever you could to open yourself, to be here, and allow yourself to be affected by what other people are bringing you?

Photo Credit: Federico_Morando via Compfight cc

Being witness

Many times

the biggest help you can be

is to turn a listening ear towards another

to hear everything they have to say

no matter how troubling how painful how confusing

to give up for a while

being another judge, another critic, another fixer of troubles

to be a welcome to all of it

all of it

and in your seeing and hearing embrace

find out how healing

being witness can be

Photo Credit: Magdalena Roeseler via Compfight cc

How to help

Of course you want to help.

Of course you want to relieve other people of their suffering and difficulty where you can.

But it’s easy to confuse what’s actually, genuinely of help with what makes you feel better.

In other words, it’s easy to do what makes you at ease and then take your ease as proof that you must be doing good.

But being of help does not and cannot always feel that way.

Genuine helping is an act of vulnerability and courage and openness towards another. It requires you to give up all your demands that things turn out or feel a particular way. And to give up needing a particular kind of response from the other person. In real difficulty, it might involve you giving up knowing, or pretending to know, what to do at all.

Confusion over this, and of course your wish that others not feel pain, can lead you down some queasy paths. You reassure a friend facing a possibly life-threatening illness that everything will be alright. You ask someone who is grieving if they are ok, when ‘ok’ is the word furthest from their experience.

In your attempts at kindness, you end up missing the other’s simple deepest wish for connection: being seen and understood, their difficulty recognised for the suffering it is. Your kindness leaves them feeling more alone.

From speaking to others who have experience of this, and from an interlude of my own acute, frightening illness, it seems clear to me that the most compassionate and most helpful way you can speak to someone who is in difficulty of any kind is to first, simply, to ask them

“What is this like for you?”

And then listen. With every ounce of presence, openness and receptivity that you can muster. For as long as it takes for them to speak.

Allow yourself to hear something quite different from what you were hoping to hear.

And allow yourself to be changed by what they have to say.

Photo Credit: G.OZCAN via Compfight cc


We find it incredibly difficult not to have a story.

So we wrap stories around what we don’t understand, around anything seems incomplete, around anything mysterious.

Which means we’re always making up stories about other people, whose actions we can see but whose inner experience we can never fully know. Instead of leaving ourselves in the dark, we invent intentions, thoughts, purposes and feelings on behalf of others – whatever will give us a coherent story to which we can respond.

And then we forget that it’s a story at all.

And because it’s our story and not theirs, it should be no wonder that it contains endless assumptions, projections, speculations, inventions, judgements – many of which will be coherent but inaccurate.

And then no wonder that we can have such a difficult time getting along.

One approach to all this? Cling more and more tightly to your story. Don’t look for or let anything in that might blow it apart.

Another? Adopt the radical move of dropping all your stories and listening for a while.

But when you’re prepared to treat another person, another team, another group, another community as mysterious enough, perhaps you’ll discover that what’s going on is way different from what you thought.

More importantly, you’ll give yourself a way of responding that actually meets the other person, sees them, instead of missing them by a mile.

Photo Credit: JD Hancock via Compfight cc

On Words

To be a human being is to live in a house of words.

Words that can move others into action, or sow seeds of doubt and confusion.
Words that can coordinate our efforts, or scatter us apart.
Words that can reveal hidden depths in the world, or cover them up.
Words that can build relationships, or undo them.
Words that can heal, or hurt.
Words that can bring our intentions into being, or our hide them away.
Words that are congruent with what matters, or words that twist or distort it.
Words that bring out the best in people, or words that stifle it.
Words that illuminate, or words that cast into shadow.
Words that bring life, or words that deaden.

In all of this, it helps us to remember that the human world is founded on words.

That words matter.

And that this brings huge responsibility and huge opportunity, in every moment, to address our human difficulties and possibilities through how we listen and how we talk.

Photo Credit: [phil h] via Compfight cc


Hearing what’s said

Notice how attached you are to others speaking to you in a particular way.

That you’ll only really listen to what’s been said, or count it as true, when it fits just the form you wish.

Maybe for you it has to be concise and to the point for you to pay attention.

Or maybe complete, anticipating every angle.

Perhaps it has to be kind, without a shred of judgement or criticism before you’ll let it in.

Or maybe directuntainted by emotion or sentiment.

Perhaps it has to be clever, fresh, intellectually stimulating or else you’ll judge it as boring.

Or maybe you insist that it’s practical, worthless unless you can immediately tell what to do with what you’re hearing.

Perhaps you’ll only listen to what’s businesslike, and tune out of anything that’s personal.

Or maybe you’ll listen only when what’s being said is deep and poetic.

In every case you’re letting your preferences, and quite possibly your prejudices, deafen you to a world of possibility.

You’re purposefully keeping your world small, familiar.

Maybe it’s easier this way. At least you won’t have to really consider anything that’s too troubling.

The task for all of us? Letting go of all of this, so that we can hear more and more of what’s being said.

And so we can tune in – and respond – to ever wider categories of concern.

Photo Credit: Darwin Bell via Compfight cc


It’s one thing to have good intentions about your relationships with others.

You also need good practices to bring them about, repeated actions by which you

pay attention
stay open or defend yourself
share your cares and commitments
choose what to say and what not say
respond to emotions
interpret events as they happen.

When the practices that connect you to one another are neglected, relationships atrophy. At first slowly. And then quickly. Before long nobody can point to the moment when the trouble started nor to what it is that is missing. It’s just that something necessary isn’t there, something that once brought this team, this family, this organisation alive.

And then it becomes easy to judge others and blame them for making things so hard. And to forget that it’s how you’re acting right now that’s keeping things the way they are.

Restoring relationships calls for more than wishful thinking, and certainly for more than blaming others. It requires waking up to the actions that genuinely connect people.

And it requires remembering, a central act of all leadership: recovering the very ways of speaking and listening that once supported you, and bringing them purposefully back into being all over again.

Photo Credit: AvidlyAbide via Compfight cc

Easy and difficult

Two kinds of problem:


Those for which you already have language and concepts. The problem itself may be new, but you’re able to say what it reminds you of. And, even if hard to resolve, you have a ready source of metaphors, questions, and practices which you can bring to bear in tackling it.


Confuses you. You’re lost for words and comparisons. There are no obvious practices to address what you’re facing. The world, once clear, is thrown into uncertainty. Perhaps things aren’t as you’ve taken them to be.

Easy problems fit the world as you know it already. They make sense in the particular interpretation of life already familiar to you, your colleagues, and your culture.

But that’s only one interpretation of many.

Difficult problems reveal new worlds.

In our rush-to-results culture we’re prone to tackling all our problems as if they’re easy problems. It makes it possible for us to take action. And it helps us feel safe.

But many problems, particularly ones involving those most mysterious of creatures – other human beings – are at heart difficult, because others’ worlds are at once familiar and vastly different from what we know.

Solving such problems requires giving up our certainty in order to see the world afresh: allowing ourselves to be seriously confused; talking, and listening, and then talking and listening again; staying with the questions long enough that new kinds of answers become available; and allowing ourselves to be changed, rather than having the world and others bend immediately, compliantly, to our will. 

Photo Credit: Stuck in Customs via Compfight cc

Doing more with less

It’s the mantra of our times, ‘doing more with less’.

And it seems to have produced a frenzy of pace, of panic, of pushing, of blame, of shame, of anxiety. Hours worked go up, the number of emails circulating go up, and we turn ourselves into production machines, compensating in frantic measure for that which has been taken away from us. Everything and everyone feels like they’re on a knife edge.

And yet we’re not looking at the amount of waste this causes. The waste of attention as bodies first tire and then become exhausted. The waste of commitment as contributions are taken for granted. The waste of energy as we go faster doing work that’s not actually needed. The waste of trust as promises are broken. The waste of good will as relationships are allowed to wither and decay.

Doing more with less might, if you’re a machine, mean turning the crankshaft faster. But if you’re human, and working with others, it’s going to involve a certain measure of slowing down rather than speeding up.

You’re going to have to slow down to have conversations for relationship with the people around you. Are you all committed to the same thing? Are you sure? Have you addressed the differences in orientation between you? Have you listened well enough to understand what each of you care about? Have you worked out how you’ll respond to what you’re learning?

Going faster without doing this – and without returning to it regularly – is a way to become a supremely effective machine for producing resentment and resignation rather than the wholehearted commitment you’re going to need to get anything important done.

And you’re going to have to slow down to have conversations for possibility. Do you know what you’re actually aiming towards? Is everyone clear? Does everyone understand? Do you know how you’ll tell when you’re doing it? And how you’ll address the inevitable breakdowns along the way? Without making time for this conversation, you’ll be going faster but in different directions, spinning out further and further from one another as you go.

And you’re also going to have to slow down enough to have conversations for action, in which clear requests are made and clear offers made in return. Without skilfully doing this, you open up huge possibilities for duplication of effort, busy work, and the supreme waste of people working heroically to do something that nobody needs and nobody asked for. Modern organisations are full of this, and it leads to further resentment rather than the thrill of challenging work completed against the odds.

It takes bold, courageous leadership to take a stand against the tide of action and get people talking to one another in this way, because somehow we’ve concluded that talking and doing are in opposition to one another. But unless you make this stand and make it possible for others to do the same, you’ll be joining the growing ranks of depleted, exhausted organisations who tried to do more with less and ended up with a lot less than even they had bargained for.

Photo Credit: wabisabi2015 via Compfight cc

What people think

One of the most necessary liberations comes when you discover that what other people think of you is not the same as who you are. When you can stop identifying yourself with the stories and assessments of others, you can also free yourself from the constant inner pressure to appear as you think people want you to.

But once you know this, you have to understand that other people are not the same as your stories or assessments either. That means that whatever you think you know about them can only ever be partial, one angle on a situation way more complex than you’ve allowed for.

It means you’re going to have to learn to be way more imaginative and listen much more deeply, if you’re ever going to understand what’s going on when others are involved.

Why listening is so hard

It’s extraordinarily hard to listen to other people so that they’re actually heard.

For most of us, the difficulty begins early on. We’re so caught up in our own concerns, twisted and knotted with our fear or inner-criticism or self-interest, that we rarely extend ourselves with the kind of patience and openness that will make listening possible.

Then, if we’re able to find the part of us which does want to listen, we find that our interior world is filled with chatter: endless, whirling, disjointed. To listen to another calls upon a rare inner stillness that will give what is said a place to land, soft ground in which to take root.

And then, perhaps most difficult of all, is that other people’s worlds are so startlingly different from our own. Even those who are closest to us, those into whose eyes we gaze with longing and love – even they inhabit vast worlds whose degree of overlap with ours is tiny in comparison with their dissimilarity. The web of meanings, associations, stories and interpretations of another are, in the end, never fully knowable. And it is out of this web that people speak.

It’s miraculous that we can ever understand one another at all.

If you will listen to another, you’ll need to work with each of these. And in the end you’ll need to release yourself into the speaker’s vastness and know that you can never fully know what it is to be the person who said what you heard. Only from this suspension of knowing can real listening emerge. Only from here can you listen to the other as a real ‘you’ rather than as an ‘it’ that you figured out already.