Listening Differently sounds strange to us. Most of us probably already know what it means to listen. You just don’t talk, rather you take in what the other person is saying… But is that all you do? Actually, even when you are not speaking you are communicating all sorts of things, by your facial expressions, where you cough, lose your attention and probably a myriad of other reactions. So I would add that listening differently really means listening with intention… the intention of curiosity and wonder.

Let me go back a few steps. When we engage in conversation we already have opinions, biases, and judgments. This is not a bad thing, it just is. We can’t help it, we’ve been in this world for a while, had many conversations, formed ideas and thoughts about many things. We may try to hide it from the person we’re listening to but in some ways they may come out.

This is where we can learn something from anthropology; listening from a position of not knowing. Anthropologists learn to put aside their ideas, thoughts, biases and judgments (or at least bracket them) when they are trying to understand someone. They presume an attitude of not understanding the culture, the ideals, the history, and they work really hard to listen for clues that will let them inside someone else’s world (even if only briefly).

Here’s an example: Mary and John have been having a conversation and John feels a connection, after a while he says to Mary “I’m so depressed I just want to die.”

Mary just listens knowingly and nods John asks Mary if she’s ever felt this way and she nods again. John says, “so what did you do?”

Mary says she just rode it out and eventually felt better, which is a subtle way of saying to John that he should just ride it out.

What if Mary said to John, “I know what it was like for me to feel depressed John, but I really don’t know what it means for you. Can you tell me what it’s like for you?

This gives John the opportunity to go into a bit more detail rather than just assume Mary knows what he’s talking about.

Listening differently may take some practice but at the end of the day may lead to deeper, more meaningful relationships.

By Shery Mead:

Shery Mead has been developing and teaching intentional peer support since 1995. Intentional Peer Support is a way of thinking about and inviting transformative relationships between people. In this process we learn to use relationships to see ourselves from new angles, develop greater awareness of personal and relational patterns, and support and challenge each other into trying out new ways of seeing and knowing. We do this by following 3 principles and 4 tasks. The principles include the idea of learning together rather than the intention of helping each other, a focus on relationship as opposed to a focus on the individual, and paying attention to hope based interactions rather than reacting out of fear. The tasks include connection, worldview, mutuality and moving towards.

Shery has done extensive speaking and training, nationally and internationally, on the topics of alternative approaches to crisis, trauma informed peer services, systems change, and the development and implementation of peer operated services. Her publications include academic articles, training manuals and a book co-authored with Mary Ellen Copeland, Wellness Recovery Action Planning and Peer Support.

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