The secret life of groups, our introductory guide

If you read our last blog post, you’ll know that this is the last of a short series of three blogs to remind you of the introductory guides in our resources section. This one is on groups.

The aspect of the guide that I want to develop here is active listening. I’ve always found that a challenge, both to do myself and to explain to others. The guide says briskly “active listening is a state of mind that we can work towards” – but that’s a good deal more easily said than done.

The best material I’ve found on listening comes from two books: Dialogue by William Isaacs and Solving Tough Problems by Adam Kahane. The first point is that we can get quite a long way by taking some of the expressions and thoughts that we have about speaking and applying them to listening. Isaacs refers to two people who are “not on listening terms”. He met someone who said to him, “You know, I have always prepared myself to speak. But I have never prepared myself to listen.”

Sometimes it is hard to listen. Kahane notes that, “the root of not listening is knowing. If I already know the truth, why do I need to listen to you?” One piece of advice for dealing with this is to treat the person you are listening to as a teacher: what can they teach you that you don’t already know?

Another reason it can be hard to listen to someone is that you think you know what they have to say. The advice here is to ‘make them strange’. Look at them as if they were totally different from you.

What is it that you are listening for? Kahane once facilitated a gathering of Anglican bishops in Cape Town in South Africa. On the first morning, they discussed what would make for a successful meeting. “We must listen to one another” said one of the bishops. “No, brother, that’s not quite it”, said a second, “We must listen with empathy. Then a third bishop spoke up, “Brother, that’s still not quite what we need. We must listen to the sacred within all of us.” Whether or not you are religious, that advice to listen for the essence holds good.

I think the most profound advice of all comes from Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher, whom Isaacs quotes:

“If we try to listen we find it extraordinarily difficult, because we are always projecting our opinions and ideas, our prejudices, our background, our inclinations, our impulses; when they dominate we hardly listen to what is being said. In that state there is no value at all. One listens and therefore learns, only in a state of attention, a state of silence in which this whole background is in abeyance, is quiet; then, it seems to me, it is possible to communicate.”

In order to truly listen, you have to get out of your own way.