The problem with listening.

It’s a common complaint; that people don’t listen. You see it happening all the time. Especially in sales conversations and meetings. People don’t listen even when they are trying to listen. It’s as if sometimes they just don’t hear what is being said. Then meetings go wrong. Customers don’t buy into what the sales person is offering. Teams fail to reach agreement on an action plan. Or people spend hours in meetings that go round and round in circles because everyone is so keen to make their point yet they never get anywhere. So they schedule another meeting so that they can take part in the same opinion parade again.

But why are we so bad at listening? Is it the pace of modern life? Do we spend so much time under so much stress that we lose the ability to take in more information? Do we blame the education system? Should we put listening on the national curriculum? Because everybody seems to agree that it is a vital skill, yet we all seem to be so bad at it.

Lack of listening is a problem that people seem happy to live with. A classic case of; people live with problems. So we accept the amount of time we waste in long, unproductive and deeply boring meetings. We don’t even measure the cost of lost sales due to the salesperson not listening. Neither do we measure the hours we spend resolving conflict between individuals, which has lack of listening at its heart. Or what about the impact on the motivation and engagement of those people who just don’t feel heard?

The impact of listening well

Just stop and think for a moment. Imagine a working day where every time people got together they did the following?

a) were fully present all the time

b) intently listened to everything that was being said

c) showed respect for other people’s opinions (even if they don’t agree with them)

d) asked questions to clarify their understanding of other people’s points of view

e) demonstrated understanding of other people’s positions BEFORE they voiced their own opinion?

How much more productive and positive would those conversations be? What I’m talking about here is the essence of good dialogue. Not discussion, but dialogue. The two, as Bill Isaacs points out, are very different. Most conversations in most organisations are discussions. They never come close to being a dialogue.

What gets in the way

Most of the time dialogue can’t happen because people aren’t fully present in the room. There is too much noise going on in their heads and too much screaming coming from their hearts. Eckhart Tolle makes the point that we spend most of our time in our heads – what he calls our Ego. Our heads are great for a lot of things, but Headspace (or the Ego) is also extremely judgmental. Our thoughts come from our past and our memories and are heavily influenced by what Tolle calls our Pain Body. The Pain Body lives in our Heartspace and carries every emotional hurt from our past.

I prefer to think of it as a Pain Baby. Because it screams every time it gets triggered. And what’s the only thing that you can hear when a baby is screaming? You’re right; the baby. Most of us hate our Pain Babies. It’s the one baby that we find really ugly. So we don’t react to it in a loving and gentle way. We are far more likely to smack it, lock it up in a room, scream back or throw it at somebody else to deal with. None of these are effective parenting strategies to calm down our Pain Baby. So it carries on crying. That’s why we can’t hear anybody else. Because we are so deafened by our own Pain Baby’s wails.

Managing our Pain Baby

Attachment Theory provides insight on how to manage our Pain Baby. Attachment Theory describes a child as operating in two complementary systems. First is the exploratory system. When we are operating in this system we are full of curiosity and joy. We are out there playing and exploring our world; expanding the boundaries of our knowledge and consciousness. Then something frightens us, or we fall over and hurt ourselves. At that moment we activate our attachment system. This system has one goal: get close to our primary caregiver. This is because when we are young and helpless babies we can only survive by being close to our caregiver.

Other authors describe the same process in different ways. To quote Steve Peters our attachment system is our chimp brain. Neuroscience links it to our amygdala. In Transactional Analysis it is the equivalent of entering our Child Ego state.

Creating a secure base – Playing to Win

Attachment Theory focuses on how our caregiver responds when we activate our attachment system. If they respond to us in a loving and sensitive way, calming us down and talking to us about what happened and how we reacted then we learn to self-regulate our own emotions. Knowing that we have our Secure Base close by, we can then re-enter our exploratory system and go back to exploring our world. So we learn to be comfortable with autonomy and intimacy. Growing up with a Secure Base caregiver means that as adults we can become Secure in ourselves AND can be a Secure Base for others. So in George Kohlreiser’s words we can Play To Win. We show caring (because we are comfortable with intimacy) and daring (because we are comfortable with autonomy and risk-taking). Research has also shown that Secure children tend to have the best psychological health.

What this means is that we are better-placed to look after our Pain Baby. When it cries we are more likely to respond to it in a loving and caring way, and talk to it about its fears, so that it calms down.  Having a quiet, sleeping Pain Baby means we can fully listen to others. Because we are then back in our own exploratory system, when we are curious and interested in the world around us. And fully present in the here and now, without being influenced by what has happened in our past.

Avoiding the Pain Baby – Playing To Dominate

Attachment Theory teaches that we don’t always get that loving and caring response from our caregivers. A child’s crying can make a parent feel anxious and uncomfortable. So the parent withdraws and rejects the child. The child then learns that showing attachment behaviours decreases their ability to get close to their caregiver. Only when they deactivate their attachment system will the caregiver respond to them. So, given that the one goal of the attachment system is to get close to the caregiver, the child grows up fearing their own emotional reactions. They then push their own emotions away and resist intimacy with others.

This produces the Avoidant style. Avoidants tend to focus on task rather than people. They prefer not to talk about feelings, and they avoid getting close to people. Avoidants are often successful in corporate environments because they are hardworking and focused on process and task. They encompass Kohlreiser’s daring style, but lack the caring aspect. So they “Play To Dominate” rather than win.

Responding to the Avoidant Pain Baby

When we fear our own emotional responses (i.e. the cries of our Pain Baby) we adopt the Avoidant approach. That’s when we push the Pain Baby away and refuse to listen to it. We try to lock it in a room. But we also avoid listening to others. So being able to listen starts with picking up our own Pain Baby when it cries and holding it. Showing it some love. Waiting for it to stop crying so that we can engage in a conversation with it to find out what is wrong. It’s amazing what that can reveal for us.

Overwhelmed by the Pain Baby – Playing Not To Lose

A second type of parent is one who is so full of anxiety themselves that they are always intruding on their child. So the Pain Baby might be fast asleep but this type of parent will quickly wake it up. Highly anxious parents present children with highly unpredictable responses. The child’s attachment strategy in this scenario is to learn to shout loudly. Because whoever shouts loudest wins. The child’s attachment system has to be vocal enough and strong enough to overcome the parent’s anxiety in order to achieve its goal of closeness and protection. This produces the Anxious style.

Anxious people worry about their relationships. They constantly seek reassurance that they are loved and valued. In Kohlreiser’s words they Play Not To Lose. They are caring, because they need to feel liked in order to feel safe, but they lack the confidence to dare. They often fail in organisations because they can’t take risks and worry too much about the consequences of their actions. In effect this is a Pain Baby who never sleeps. It is always on constant alert. Which can get very tiring for all concerned. After all, who likes dealing with a tired and grouchy baby that isn’t getting enough sleep?

Responding to the Anxious Pain Baby

When we live with a high level of neuroticism we adopt the Anxious approach. Our Pain Baby is constantly screaming, and so are we. Listening to others is impossible with all that noise going on. Again, our first step is to be able to hear our own anxiety, stop and pick up the baby. Hold it and love it. Allow it to calm down and express its fears. Start to explore what is behind those fears. This will inevitably involve bringing up past stuff.

You might say: I don’t want to live in the past. You’re right. You shouldn’t. The only reason for looking at the past is to understand what is happening in the here and now. So you bring out into the light all those fears and emotions that have been washing around in the darkness for years. Get them out into the light and have a good look at them. Because then you can let them go. And that will leave you free and silent, and able to listen to others.

Sounds easy? Not really. As I said, most of us find our Pain Babies really ugly. So we prefer not to deal with them. They are our “problem child”. As with most problem children we don’t really know how to deal with them.

The Controlling Pain Baby – Playing To Avoid

The Controlling attachment style has high levels of both avoidance and anxiety. Parents of a Controlling child tend to respond to the child’s attachment behaviour with a smack or abandonment. This produces a child who has to be in total control at all times in order to feel safe. These children tend to cause huge problems in families and society. It is the most challenging type.

In conversations I am probably most in control when I am asking questions. Questions get other people to reveal information about themselves that I can potentially use to my advantage if I wish. And they are an effective way of directing (and therefore controlling) a conversation. But most of us fall into the trap of controlling through dominating the airtime. Voicing our own opinions rather than taking the time to listen to others. That’s the Controlling Pain Baby at work. Helps it to feel safe. And feeling safe is absolutely fundamental to all human beings. 

In Kohlreisers’ model the Controlling style Plays To Avoid. They resist intimacy (because that means losing control) so they are not caring. And because they are so deeply scarred they don’t have the courage and self-confidence to strike out and take risks. So they aren’t daring either. 

However, they can be incredibly self-reliant. As David Howe points out, learning to be self-reliant in conditions of extreme poverty or danger is effective for survival. For example, a Controlling or even Avoidant child may survive better in a war zone than a Secure child. They may also do well in the dog-eat-dog world of business. But they don’t have the same level of psychological good health as the Secure child. Hence why there is so much stress and mental ill health in the world of business.

Responding to the Controlling Pain Baby

You probably know by now what you need to do with the Controlling Pain Baby. Attachment Theory teaches that it all has to start with love. Just being there and holding them, and loving them. Yes, they might push us away. In fact, in a lot of cases, it is inevitable that they will push us away. Driven by all the hurt and anger they have carried for us over the years down there in the darkness. The easy option then is to withdraw. The more difficult path is to take a deep breath, and just say “I’m here. Ready to listen. When you’re ready to talk”.

From darkness to light

Listening to our Pain Baby is only one part of listening to ourselves. Because where there is darkness there is also light. To quote Marianne Williamson “it is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us”. Connecting with our Pain Baby means we can then turn towards our light. And connect with what really makes us shine and make the best of the potential that exists in every one of us. Because, paradoxically, the Pain Baby is often the one who knows us best, and knows what we need to do to shine at our most brilliant and brightest.