I recently had the opportunity to attend a powerful self leadership workshop.
In one of the exercises, the facilitator asked us to partner up. We were instructed to take turns telling one another a story. The speaker was to speak for 2 minutes about something triggering to them. The listener was asked, simply, to listen.
“There are many kinds of communication,” the facilitator told us. “The one we are focusing on here is intentional sharing to share. The distinction here is that we are not sharing to instruct, inform or reach a particular desired outcome.”
After the exercise, the group came back together to discuss what we had experienced.
“What did you notice,” the workshop facilitator asked, addressing the room.
“I noticed how great it was to share something that had emotional meaning for me and to feel truly heard by my partner,” one woman volunteered.
Many heads nodded in agreement.
“How did you know you were being heard?” the facilitator questioned further.
“Well,” the woman replied, “my partner’s facial expressions mirrored the feelings I was sharing, and she said things like ‘wow, that must have been hard,’ and ‘that was a courageous thing you did’.”
The facilitator was quiet for a moment. She then asked, “are you saying that you felt heard and understood because you experienced agreement and validation from the other person?”
The woman thought for a few seconds and then responded, “I guess so, yes.”
“Did anyone else feel and experience this same thing?” asked the facilitator.
Many hands shot up.
The facilitator was quiet, deliberately looking around the room at each participant individually.
Finally, she spoke.
“We are going to do that exercise again. This time, when it’s your turn to listen, you will be doing so from a place of Neutral Presence. Let me explain what this is.”
“Neutral presence is about being with the other person, not being there for them.”
She paused to let what she had just said sink in.
“To practice this, you will hold eye contact with your partner and focus on your own breathing. Your intention is to be present to the moment you’re in, and no more.”
Again, she paused for emphasis.
“You are not to respond to the speaker in any way. No nodding, comments or obvious expressions. Again, your job is to be with the person – holding eye contact and a neutral expression the entire time.”
The group was silent.
“Are there any questions?” the facilitator asked.
“This sounds hard!” someone called out.
The facilitator smiled. “Well, let’s find out,” she replied, and we began.
Active, neutral listening is not all that new for me as a coach. What I was able to experience, however, being both intentional listener and speaker, gave me a much greater understanding of the true value of this practice.
My partner was a 24 year old graduate student studying Leadership Communication at Harvard. She was the first to be speaker in this second go around.
Before we began, she leaned over and whispered, “I don’t know how well I’m going to do at this. I’m kind of a people pleaser.”
I smiled, and before I could reply in the way I might have otherwise, I became aware of my first opportunity to be neutral listener. I said nothing.
She looked at me, questioningly.
It was very interesting to witness my partner as I simply looked at her and remained neutral during my listening part of the exercise. It was also fascinating to observe what was going on within me during the whole exchange.
As my partner began, it didn’t take long to notice that she seemed uncomfortable with the fact that I wasn’t responding in any obvious way to what she was saying. I witnessed some fear flash across her face. This was soon followed by an irritated expression and even a bit of anger moved in and out of the mix. Then I saw her switch.
She went in.
It was clear what she had been experiencing with me was not giving her what her conditioned mind was expecting (even knowing the exercise we were doing – that’s how fully immersed we are in our conditioning).
By not getting what she thought she wanted from me, she went in for what she truly needed.
I watched her eye movements reflect inner contemplation. Her tone of voice changed. Her manner of telling the story did, too. It took on a quality of “talking to herself” or “thinking out loud,” and she began to seem less interested in my response to her and more tuned into her thoughts and what she was saying. She became more thoughtful.
At this point, my partner was not simply telling a story, she was processing it for herself.
On my end, it felt like being in an art museum where I was regarding something interesting and beautiful, without having to do … well, …anything. Like standing in front of a great work of art, taking it all in, and it requiring nothing from me at all, but to be present with it.
When it was my turn to speak, it felt very freeing not to have the distractions that often come from others “listening” – the interjections, the sounds of acknowledgment and affirmation and the expressions. I, also, found myself thinking more about what I was sharing, not from the point of view of needing to make it clear, interesting or even entertaining for my partner, but to determine the meaning and even more, the learning opportunity that telling the story offered me.
When the group was done, as before, we came back together to share what we had experienced.
My partner was the first to speak up. “I really realized how much I rely on other people validating me to feel like what I’m saying is worthwhile … that I’m worthwhile,” she said. “I kept feeling my partner was bored with what I was sharing, and I felt stupid and like I was rambling or something.”
Her expression changed. “But, it was funny, there was a point when I realized that I saw caring and compassion in my partner’s eyes and that my feelings were probably about the meaning I was giving things. At that point, I think I started paying more attention to what I was sharing.”
A man in the group quickly followed.
“I found it easy to be neutral and not necessarily show expression or give feedback when I was listening,” he said. “But what was more challenging was keeping the eye contact and remaining truly present with my partner. I kept finding my own thoughts drifting off.”
“Could this, perhaps, be about not being able to speak or give feedback or that what the person was saying wasn’t interesting to you?” the facilitator asked the man.
When he didn’t respond, she continued. “You say you didn’t struggle with staying neutral and feeling the need to give feedback, but sometimes, the reason we ‘drift off’ and find it difficult remaining present with another is because we want to be or are used to doing the speaking, ourselves, or that we are making what they are saying about us and our own level of interest in and feeling of relevance about what is being communicated.”
The man looked very thoughtful. “Wow,” he said, “that hit home. I think you’re right, and I get to look at that. Thank you.”
“I honor you,” the facilitator said simply and then moved on.
“Would anyone else like to share?” she asked the group.
“I really struggled to keep a neutral face and not express what I was hearing or let my partner know, in some way, that I understood what she was sharing,” said a woman. “For this reason, I found it hard to simply listen to what she was saying. I was so in my head about not being able to react to her.”
“Where else in your life might you struggle to receive from and simply be with others?” the facilitator asked.
“Everywhere,” the woman replied. “I guess I really get to look at that,” she said quietly.
The facilitator looked directly at the woman and, again, she said, “I honor you.”
And she moved on.
Another man raised his hand to share. “I found myself wanting to offer solutions and ‘fix’ the issue my partner was sharing with me. I think I know what I get to look at.”
We all laughed.
“So, raise your hand if you felt differently the second time you listened to your partner’s story,” the facilitator said.
Everyone’s hand went up.
“What about how you felt telling your story the second time?” she asked. “Was that different from the first time, as well?”
Again, each participant raised his/her hand.
“When we choose to listen from a place of neutral presence, everyone wins,” the facilitator said simply. “The person speaking has the chance to discover deeper meaning and understanding from what (s)he is sharing versus seeking validation and a sense of being okay in the eyes of the listener. We all need to learn to receive this sense of okayness from ourselves, not others.”
She paused and looked around the room.
“Otherwise, we will often spend time in communications that are more about seeking worthiness than about truly connecting and reaching an actual state of deeper self knowledge, acceptance and worth.”
There was a collective “mmm …” that rippled throughout the room.
She continued. “Having good rapport with someone isn’t about the action level of what you can do for the person, or even what they can do for you. We are all here to learn, for ourselves, what we need to learn. We can certainly ask for support when we need it, but it’s for us to ask.”
The self proclaimed “fix it” man chuckled.
The facilitator smiled. “Doing things for people, even something as simple as nodding along with them as they share a story can actually keep that person from discovering what they are fundamentally telling the story to find.”
My partner let out a sigh.
“We all can get caught up in the great feeling of being validated or having someone step in and fix something for us, but if that happens, are we learning, for ourselves, what we truly need?”
We were all quiet as we thought about the facilitator’s question.
I began to think of the way we have, conditionally, come to understand the act of giving and receiving.
I often say the thought that “giving is better than receiving” is BULL!
Neither is better. We need to have reciprocity of give and receive in organisms, relationships, organizations and systems of all kinds for them to work well, sustain and prosper.
What I learned that day, more clearly, is that it is the quality of the giving and receiving that’s important.
What I saw can best be expressed as the HOW and the WHAT.
How we give and receive and what we gain (each of us) from it.
A neutral listener is one who receives, not simply the information and the opportunity to “be there” with and witness the speaker, but the chance to give back by how (s)he listens.
To make available to the one speaking the potential to access something valuable for herself/himself.
In so doing, the speaker, too, has, in the same exchange, the opportunity to give and receive in a way that is valuable and impactful. (S)he gives the listener the space to listen neutrally and all that goes with it, while also seeking to better understand that which (s)he is sharing.
I have come to see the subtle art of neutral listening as a gift. One that literally takes nothing and gives so very, very much.