The Transformational Power of Listening

By Kelly Pope, SV2 Get Proximate Co-Lead, SV2 Partner

This article is the sixth in a series about the principles and practice of getting proximate:

In previous Get Proximate articles, we have examined the importance of discovering multiple narratives, framing our communication through asset based language, and how to develop empathy. These are core principles of “getting proximate” which are only realized by employing our vital sense of listening.

There are many types of listening that (active, reflective, empathetic, deep). While many of these listening techniques share similar attributes such as listening neutrally or being patient while listening, deep listening is best suited for getting proximate as it allows us “to hear every dimension of the other person, both what is said as well as what is implied. It means to hear the words and the emotions underneath them.”

Listening by itself sounds so simple, but to listen deeply is not so easy. Deep listening takes a certain stillness of mind and body. It takes focus yet requires openness. Listening is not merely hearing. Hearing is the physical process whereby our ears convert sound waves to electrical signals and are sent to our brains. Listening, on the other hand, requires cognition – the mental process of becoming aware of what we have just heard. When we notice something new or different from our own experience, then the value of this deep listening is very high. As defined by the science of information theory (my major in college), the more “surprising” the content of a communicated message, the higher value this information holds. Thus, part of the goal of deep listening is to hear those things that are novel to us or that we have not known or experienced before.

As we get ready to listen, there are several primers that will help focus our ears and minds for deep listening:

Seek relevant videos or pre-reading

SV2 recently held a Get Proximate experience with its Community Partner/Grantee, One Life Counseling Center (OLCC), an organization that provides trauma and life counseling services to immigrants. Several articles and videos were sent to Partners before attending to prepare them for the experience. These articles described the trauma that immigrants face as they journey to the United States. (e.g. How Being a First-Generation American Affected My Mental Health) In the survey after the experience, 89% of survey participants said they had a better sense of the importance of social services provided to immigrants. The articles primed Partners to listen deeply as they heard traumatic stories told by immigrants, ultimately helping them understand how OLCC was a lifeline to them as newly arrived immigrants.

Develop a set of questions

As your parents used to say, “You only get out what you put in.” As with any new learning experience, if a priori, you think about what you want to get out of the experience and develop a few questions ahead of time, your antenna becomes highly tuned to listen for the answers. There is a high probability that you will absorb much more than just the answers you were seeking.

Lose the temptation to talk

The best way to hear an authentic story is to make the storyteller feel comfortable. Humbly affirm your desire to hear their story. Be in-tune with the storyteller’s voice and body language so you can sense their needs and respond respectfully. Sometimes you may receive a signal that it’s best to remain quiet, even in moments of long pause. Other times that signal may require you to respond with empathy, ask a respectful question, or hold the space for others to speak. If note taking helps you practice deep listening, consider giving the speaker a heads up ‌you are doing so. This can help confirm you are still being present in the conversation. In your notes, try to capture what is said and how it said. Resist the urge to re-organize information and change things so they are in your own words. In the conversation, you can then demonstrate your deep listening by reiterating the speaker’s exact words as you share some thoughts. 

Eliminate pre-judgement and open your mind

To fully experience deep listening, let’s purge ourselves of preconceived notions or ideas about what we are going to hear. We must clear our minds so that we don’t have any niggling thought bubbles that might distract us from fresh stories. Finally, let’s not try to predict anything about what we will hear and experience. Let’s listen with humility and curiosity, acknowledging that we know we don’t have all the answers and approach listening with a willingness to learn. 

Consider a reflection session

When the storytelling is over, one of the best ways to synthesize and absorb what we heard is to join a group of others who have shared the same experience. Being able to listen and reflect on what others heard from the experience helps us integrate our learnings and understandings.     

Deep listening can transform us. As we listen and gain new information, we naturally develop fresh ideas and perspectives. We see things as they are, not as we might have presumed. Deep listening is the beginning of building trusting relationships. It is foundational to getting proximate. Deep listening leads to learning, which in turn leads to understanding.