2020: A year meant for listening & learning – but are we doing it?

I’ve spent many years doing this Live Drawing gig. It’s my biggest livelihood maker. I get to draw and learn for most of my living! How cool is that? Alot of people wonder how I can listen and remember and draw – stuff that I might not actually know, hearing the content for the first time – all at the same time! So when the speaker has finished – the drawing is pretty much finished too. It’s live. There’s no space for making post-it-notes and then draw/edit later. That’s not how I do it. Because then that wouldn’t be the real essence of that talk. It would be my memory of the bits I understood the most or stood out. It wouldn’t be the actual talk. That’s not my style. I like to include all the stories and bits in it that a lot of other graphic facilitators miss out. I try to capture not what’s just being said, but the heart and context of it all.

This year, the year of Lockdown, I lost 85% of my livelihood & gigs in a New York minute ( I -luckily – picked up other work elsewhere) as conferences and workshops all stopped. And I am nervous for the future of what that work will look like. But I will adapt, I am sure.

When I was learning this craft of mine; the ability to properly listen became my superpower. Just listening. It gave up space for me to carry on making all these connections, storing it, and drawing — whilst listening to the next new stuff.

It made me realize that a lot of us aren’t ever 100% properly listening (including myself!) When was the last time really listened, without thinking about what you wanted to say next, glancing down at your phone or jumping in to offer your opinion? And when was the last time someone really listened to you? Was so attentive to what you were saying and whose response was so spot on that you felt truly understood… really heard?

We are encouraged to listen to our hearts, our inner voices and our guts, but rarely are we encouraged to listen carefully and purposefully to other people.

The year of zoom/ms teams/skype/jitsi/etc has been a wild one. Social online gatherings with physical lags – conversations staggered, frozen; the worlds most awkward pauses because we can’t see peoples body languages to see if they’re going to say something next. Online and in person, it’s all about defining yourself, shaping the narrative and staying on message.

And yet, listening can be more valuable than speaking. Wars have been fought, fortunes lost, health decreased and friendships & communities wrecked for lack of listening. It is only by listening that we engage, understand, empathize, cooperate and develop as human beings. It is fundamental to any successful relationship — personal, professional and political.

The lack of listening is causing a whole host of issues. A push of misinformation, of people following radically bad groups, of the pandemic of loneliness & mental health issues — and this was before the Covid-19 pandemic… extra not being listened to just exasperated these issues further. as does access to the technology that can exasperate it.

As a healthcare professional, and someone that works in all areas of health & the community, one thing that comes up again and again is experiences of not being listened to. It’s hard to pin-point exactly what makes a good listener – but ask any patient or member of the public about experiences with professionals – medical or otherwise – and they’re likely talk about times when they felt not listened to. the sad truth is that people have more experience being cut off, ignored and misunderstood than heard to their satisfaction.

When I was suffering from never-ending BAD headaches, a sexist neurologist told me it was (in so many words) that it’s mostly young women who suffer from chronic headaches so it’s not serious or a big issue ( was for me, obvs) and that it’s likely from a trauma, but doesn’t have to be a big trauma, just something small like… looked me up and down… and said, “something small like not fitting in.” The dude had properly judged me & thought I wouldn’t pick up on his judgements of words. Of course, in these situations where something is so vitally important – you remember everything. You’re the best listener ever. You pick up on mean bits of language like that, everything else is hightened too – like the sick coloured walls surrounding you, the very garish 60’s furniture. And you remember it. That was 5 years ago.

He told me to go to talking therapy before he’d even do any investigations or prescribe me something. At the time I was exasperated by this, as I was already feeling very much on the edge, after 18 months never ending headache. But you have to play the NHS game. You follow the rules, and TBH I would have done anything to help. If he told me to hang upside down, singing one direction songs for 5 days in a row – I would have done it.

But I was a bit skeptical. I got an appointment a few weeks later. And I spoke to this counsellor dude, who was obviously assessing me and where i’d fit best – into what programme. He asked questions and I spoke. We talked for nearly 2 hours. And at the end of it – he said he didn’t think I needed talking therapy – unlessss I wanted it – but i needed a second opinion from a diff neurologist. He told me he thought that I was incredibly strong with everything I had gone through (this nearly broke me).

It didn’t make my headache go away. But it did make me feel better, generally, in my self — in my soul. And I realized that it was because for the first time – ever? in a long time…. I felt heard and really truly listened too. I can’t actually explain what he did that made him feel like the most exceptional listener – but I think it was in his timing of the questions, his body languages and the words of his questions. The spaces? The time, maybe? I used that service once, & I still tell others to go and use it.

I discovered that listening goes beyond simply hearing what people say. It also involves paying attention to how they say it and what they do while they are saying it, in what context, and how what they say resonates within you.

A lot of listening has to do with how you respond — the degree to which you facilitate the clear expression of another person’s thoughts and, in the process, crystallize your own.

Good listeners ask good questions. I was in the Doncaster Freepress this year, and I’ve since become good friends with the journalist who wrote my piece. And I knew she was an awesome journalist because she knows that anyone can be interesting if you ask the right questions. That is, if you ask truly curious questions that don’t have the hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing or correcting. And she does that. interrogation will get you information, but it won’t be credible or reliable.

I believe as a nation, The UK, we are in a grave position because we have a leader and a government cabinet – picked only for their deficiencies – who can’t or refuse to listen. They are making the same mistakes over and over and over again, making problems even worse. There’s no more excuses. Their inability to listening is deafening. We’ve just got one of the worst deals in modern history with our biggest trade partnering block – all under the disguise of Brexit – a scapegoat by a government who has undercut millions of working class and lower middle class people and told them it’s the EU or immigration. NOT choices by a government that does not or simply chooses not to listen or understand.

How you listen can work like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you’re barely listening to someone because you think that person is boring or not worth your time, you could actually make it so. Moreover, listening to other people makes it more likely other people will listen to you. 

Listening is a skill. And as with any skill, it degrades if you don’t do it enough. It’s something I had to learn to do well for my live-drawing, and something I will worry about not doing as much of it for the future. Some people may have stronger natural ability while others may have to work harder, but each of us can become a better listener with practice. The more people you listen to, the more aspects of humanity you will recognize, and the better your instincts will be. Listening well can help you understand other people’s attitudes and motivations, which is essential in building cooperative and productive relationships, as well as discerning which relationships you’d be better off avoiding. When you experience what good listening is too, you know how to ensure you can try and make other people feel like that too. It’s something I am forever striving to do in all of practices – art, health, teaching, life and beyond.

We are, each of us, the sum of what we attend to in life. The soothing voice of a parent, the sound of the ocean or rain, the guidance of a mentor, the admonishment of a supervisor, the rallying call of a leader and the taunts of a rival ultimately form and shape us. And to listen poorly, selectively or not at all limits your understanding of the world, and can do significant harm like it is doing now.

Let’s start to demand to be really listened to by those in power, or the very least – bin the current government for one that is human, and listened. Let’s start really truly listening. Not hi-jacking, not waiting for our turn to speak. But be present with those around us. 2020 is a lesson in what not listening to people ends up doing.

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