Did you know you think, on average, 6,200 thoughts per day? This is the claim made by Dr. Poppenk and Tseng from Queens University in Canada, in a paper published recently (here) That’s a lot of thoughts!
But how aware are you of what you think? Do you listen to your own thoughts? I mean actually listen, rather than being swept along with them or ignoring them like white noise. Unless we verbalise these thoughts and get them out of our heads, we often don’t realise what we’re actually thinking and the impact those thoughts have on how we feel and what we do or don’t do as the case may be.
Like me, chances are you’ve had, at least, some experience of speaking to someone you trust and they listened. The feeling we have when we’ve been able to download what’s in our heads to someone that’s been able to listen, can be subtle yet so powerful. We feel not only lighter and calmer but also clearer about next steps or how we feel. My friends and I often say that it’s not until we’ve said things out loud to each other that they become real. It’s not until we speak our thoughts out loud, that we can truly hear them.
With social interactions and our usual ways to connect and talk now changed, it’s important to pay attention to listening. That’s because it can be helpful to voice our thoughts either by speaking to someone else or even speaking to ourselves, so we can listen and actually hear how our thoughts sound when they are said aloud.
Now people often associate talking to yourself with mental illness, but I’d argue that it could also be a sign of mental wellness. That’s because giving our thoughts and feelings a physical voice allows us to better establish whether they are ultimately helpful or unhelpful.
When we say what we’re thinking out loud — either to just ourselves or someone else — and actually hear our thoughts we become aware of what’s going on. This awareness is the first step in ABC of First Aid for Feelings (read more here ABC of First Aid for Feelings). The A stands for Awareness and from there you can then determine whether what you are thinking is helpful or unhelpful and make changes or different choices accordingly.
Why is listening important?
The power of listening is often underestimated and many of us don’t realise that this is a skill like any other. Nancy Kline is a champion of listening and brought the importance of listening to our attention in her book Time to Think. She says that many people have never mastered the ability to pay attention to others and genuinely listen. But without listening, an environment conducive for thinking will never be created. In other words, it’s the art of listening that actually enables people (including yourself) to think clearly.
Kline’s Time to Think website outlines what she calls ‘The 10 components of a thinking environment’. While powerful individually, these components together can be transformational. Please do consider reading more about them via the aforementioned link.
Julian Treasure has also raised serious concerns that with all the noise and stimulation that we’re now exposed to we are losing our listening skills or never even develop them in the first place. In his popular TED talk (here) he talks about training your listening skills like any other skills and offers a range of exercises to do so.
My colleague David Brown in his LinkedIn post (link here) talks about how deep listening isn’t just powerful and helpful but also how it can be vital and life saving.
Making listening the focus
I am part of a collaboration of 5 people (including David) who all listen for a living. We call ourselves Room2Think. This collaboration is a response to the impact of Lockdown and our contribution to supporting those on the front line (teachers and school staff + fellow entrepreneurs). In our first video we discuss why we’ve chosen to make listening the focus of our support.
Here are some of the key points from our discussion on the inaugural video:
- How when a person has someone genuinely listening to them, they feel more relaxed, less overwhelmed and can truly open up about how they are feeling.
- How being listened to and having the space to talk allows people to really hear what they’re saying. So rather than the thoughts just going around inside their heads, they actually have a voice and can be processed back through the ears, resulting in the thoughts being heard from a different perspective, giving clarity.
- How being able to talk in a space that is non-judgmental and without prejudice ultimately leads to more fruitful conversations and allows the speaker to be heard (which is usually what they want) and find their way to their own solutions rather than being ‘fixed’.
You can find out more about Room2Think and why we focus on listening in this short (15-minute) video:
Obstacles to listening
When we are listening to something that aligns with our beliefs and feels good to hear, it’s easy to listen, we find it effortless. But when we are listening to something that doesn’t align with our beliefs or feels difficult to hear because the speaker is struggling or suffering, we can feel uncomfortable and one or more listening obstacles come into play.
In a nutshell, the nine obstacles to listening are:
- Being Judgmental
- Trying to fix or intervene
- Thinking about how what’s being said could apply to your credit or detriment
- Interrupt by talking about how you’ve had a similar experience
- Analysing what’s being said
- Avoidance, e.g. carrying out other tasks instead of focussing fully on listening
- Anticipating what the person is going to say and not letting them fully finish their train of thought
- Becoming defensive
- Withdrawing mentally so that it looks like we’re listening but we’re not really (lights are on but nobody’s home)
We all have a tendency to trip over at least a handful of these listening obstacles. So my invitation to you is to get curious about which ones you trip over. What’s your default? Think back to the last conversation you had that was a bit uncomfortable. Which obstacles can you spot in the way you were responding to the person who was talking.
These nine listening obstacles are derived from the Enneagram model of personality and behavioural styles. I won’t go into those nine type descriptions here, but if you’re curious you can learn more about them on The Enneagram Institute website here.
How to listen to other people
The focus of The Helpful Clinic Impactathon earlier this year was thinking and talking about feelings. One of the key premises was how talking about feelings is actually a skill, which means it takes time and practice to become fluent.
Now the reason I am talking about the Impactathon is because the three steps to get you talking about your feelings actually align nicely with listening too. When we talk we need someone to listen, even if that someone is us.
These three stages outlined in the graphic above create good listening conditions and will ultimately lead to a more helpful conversation being had.
When listening, it can be helpful to:
- Give yourself permission to not fix what is going on for the speaker and when you feel you’ve got all these brilliant solutions, imagine putting them in your pocket and not voicing them unless you’re specifically asked for advice. If you need to get them out of your head later, you can always write them down or ask someone else to listen to you as you ‘download’ that information from your head.
- Notice when you’re e.g. anticipating or judging or defending. First of all be kind to yourself for these reactions. This is normal. We all do it. Then as much as you are able to, experiment with not verbalising your reaction but focus on not speaking and giving the other person the space to talk themselves through what’s going on for them.
- Negotiate and create a dedicated time to listen i.e. don’t start having an important conversation 5 minutes before dinner or just before you’re about to rush out. Letting someone know that you want to make time to listen to them properly and can you call them back in an hour or can you have this conversation after dinner let’s the person know you care and that you want to make time to respond to them well.
- Remove disruptions such as gadgets, TVs and other distractions so you can give the speaker 100% of your attention. It may be obvious, but the phone ringing at a vulnerable or critical point for the other person can add stress to conversation and be challenging for both of you.
- Having said that, it can also be helpful to listen while doing an activity such as gardening, doing the dishes or going for a walk. This is especially applicable when dealing with delicate conversations as it helps soften the impact. I know a couple who use the dog walks to talk about relationship stuff because the kids don’t join them on the walks so they can speak more freely and it feels less intense.
How do you listen to yourself?
Do you never take the time to get your thoughts and feelings out of your head? While this may not seem like a big deal, as we’ve already discussed, it often means you never get a true opportunity to understand and process what you’re thinking because you haven’t given it a voice. How can you truly understand who you are if you don’t give these thoughts a voice and get them out of your head?
Thinking takes time and valuable energy (remember 6,200 thoughts a day). This is why it’s important to identify what you spend your time and energy thinking about. One of the people I work with realised that she spent a lot of energy and time thinking about her garden and that it was really detailed and convoluted. She then realised that this wasn’t actually that helpful and that she’d much prefer to think less about her garden (just enough) so she could start thinking about other things too.
Until you listen to what’s going on inside your head, you don’t know how your valuable brain budget / thinking energy and time is being used. Imagine having a radio DJ constantly playing inside your head, but you didn’t actually like the music that was being played. If this was the radio, you’d soon find a different station, right?
One of the ways to start listening to what’s going on in your head is by keeping a thought diary. This can be as little as 5-15 minutes a day. Be sure to set a timer so you don’t go over and write down everything that comes to mind, however small or big it sounds. You could start with an experiment of just 3 days and see how it feels. In the beginning it can feel a bit clunky and that you don’t know what to write.
Don’t worry, think of it as downloading your brain and you’re just noting whatever thoughts come across your mind however mundane or outlandish. If you get stuck, write: ‘I’m stuck’. One person I worked with even wrote ‘this is a stupid exercise I don’t what Thor was thinking’ and then the next thought was a lightbulb insight. The key is to keep it private and write down without judgement what you can hear in your head. No one else is going to read this. This practice is inspired by Julia Cameron’s morning pages: https://juliacameronlive.com/basic-tools/morning-pages/
Once you know your own tendencies and how you tend to think, you can begin to start recognising unhelpful patterns and then use your ABC for Feelings to establish more helpful ones.
Whether you are listening to yourself or to someone else, my invitation to you is to consider just what a nourishing space this could be for you both. As a listener, being able to be there with and for people we care about is a honour of trust and gift of closeness. As the person who’s being listened to, it’s a powerful process of processing and understanding what’s going on for us, what we need and what we need to do (if anything).
As always remember, it’s more helpful to be curious than critical.
Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor
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