Do you associate impact with finding the right words? According to Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson, there is a far more powerful way to influence. One that requires us to stop speaking – and to start listening deeply.
Judy has spent a decade as an activist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Her belief that all violence is a form of communication – led her to use listening as a tool to fundamentally shift how she approached those dealing with significant trauma.
I caught up with Judy to talk about her philosophy that deeply listening is not the same as hearing. In one hour, she showed me that deep listening instead occurs in the space we allow between the words – and that those spaces have the power to transform entire communities. Here is a direct link to our conversation: https://apple.co/2gnRTzz. Here also are the four keys I took when it comes to creating change through deep listening.
The beginnings of deep listening
Learning to listen deeply doesn’t start and end with our ears. Body language and facial expression are often much more powerful indicators. Once you feel the presence of trauma, if the situation is safe and appropriate, first provide the space to talk.
Judy quickly learned to recognise pain in the faces of others. One powerful example she gave was a woman she met walking down a Rockhampton street. The simple act of inviting this woman for tea – led to an outpouring of a tragic life story. When Judy ran into the woman again years later, she expressed deep gratitude to Judy for listening so deeply. Finally feeling heard, she was able to initiate the change needed to move forward with her life.
Simple ground rules for holding a space where healing can occur
Holding a space first involves emptying yourself – of all your preconceptions and judgements about a person or situation. Then taking the time to breathe and listen to what they are actually trying to say. If you can quickly put a stop to the inner monologue – curiosity can do its work. Questions like ‘How did that feel for you?’, ‘I can see that situation had an intense impact – can you tell me about it’. Although these questions may lead to uncomfortable places, it’s critical to keep inviting the other person to share until their well runs dry. In an action-oriented world, it’s difficult, but never interrupt too early with what you feel they ‘should’ do.
Before trying to create change in those around us – we must take full responsibility for those moments when it’s our assumptions or judgements that need to change. Giving someone else the gift of a quiet and curious mind – even when you feel deep in the middle of conflict – is one of the most powerfully transformative choices we can make.
How to use deep listening to heal conflict
Looking at the vibrations of pain in one person is no different to looking at those within a family, community, town or a nation. Sometimes the stories that emerge involve situations that happened decades or generations ago – where their voices weren’t heard. Real healing involves patience – and the willingness to let it all come to the surface – so the pieces can finally be put respectfully back together.
Judy saw first-hand that violence first needs room for expression, before it can reform into healing. However this expression doesn’t need to be words. She discovered that letting the stories emerge through acting, dance or art – especially with children – can often create a safer space to express what words cannot.
Why leaning into the discomfort is often the key to connection
Underneath all anger is grief. Although that’s always true – when dealing with someone else’s anger – it’s easy to become defensive or just step aside and let it become someone else’s problem. Instead, learn to lean into the anger. Use it as a signpost that something more vulnerable is at play – get curious about what it might be. That shift in mindset creates a space of compassion, which is often the fastest way to dissolve anger.
Judy told me a powerful story about a woman sat in a Rockhampton doctor’s surgery – speechless with trauma. On instinct she sat gently at the woman’s feet and asked where she had come from. That small action of curiosity enabled her tragic story of loss and anger to come out – without any interruption – for the first time. Allowing that grief to be heard finally opened the door to the possibility of recovery.
Holding a space for someone else can feel like a huge responsibility – especially when we’re fearful of what might be said, and our own ability to handle it. Remember that someone else’s pain is not there for you to handle – or fix – instead the most powerful thing we can do is bear witness. Remember that on most occasions we already have all our own answers – the key is to be given enough space for them to be heard.
Julie Masters is a globally recognised expert in influence, authority and thought leadership. She is the CEO and Founder of Influence Nation and Founder of ODE Management – responsible for launching and managing the careers of some of the worlds most respected thought leaders. Julie is also the host of the soon to be launched weekly podcast Inside Influence. An exploration of what it takes to find and own your voice – and then use it to drive a conversation, an idea, an industry or a Nation. To subscribe check out iTunes or juliemasters.com.