Tuesday Tales: Improve a life as you listen – Donna Thistlethwaite

“Everyone just wants to be seen, heard and loved” the funky looking 30-ish blonde said from the stage to an audience of 500. Her ripped jeans and hair that shot out in every direction, amidst the formal attire of a newly appointed Queensland Police Commissioner and a smattering of more conservatively dressed current and past Olympians, had already captured my attention. I found myself leaning in and nodding, her words resonated and I wanted to know more.

Nicole Gibson, Founder and CEO of the Love Out Loud Foundation, shared the story of how a school principal facilitated a different, and dramatically more positive, trajectory of her life by truly seeing and hearing her when she battled with anorexia nervosa as a teenager. His support enabled her to transition from near death to becoming well, securing sponsorship to travel around Australia running Circles (a process in which people openly sharing their thoughts, feelings and experiences to help process them and to learn from, and with, each other) in outback hotels and later becoming the Federal Mental Health Commissioner at the age of just 20.

I was so inspired by Nicole’s work that I attended a retreat with Love Out Loud in which we pretty much held a circle for three days, hearing and seeing each other, as we worked through our ‘stuff’. It was amazing and it further confirmed for me how powerful listening to each other and being able to be authentic is for us humans.

Recently my 12 year old son Matthew and I were in my bedroom chatting about something he wanted that I wasn’t onboard with. We were both becoming quite agitated when he turned to me and said “You don’t understand me”. With that he threw himself on our bed in frustration.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always get this right but that day I dropped my agenda and I decided to really listen to what he was saying. I reflected back what I heard him say, adding “You feel like I don’t understand you”. As I gazed in his direction I saw something shift in him … It was as though all the tension drained from his body.

Immediately I realised that the magic of good listening had touched us. I didn’t agree to what Matt asked for but his feeling heard definitely changed the dynamic of our interaction. Interesting later that evening Matt asked me if I’d like to play ping pong, an activity that I absolutely love but that he rarely agrees to do with me.

Listening to those around us can truly change people’s lives and promote great mental health. I remember as a career coach some of my clients would sit across from me and after sharing what was going on for them for an hour would say “Oh, that’s what I need to do”. I loved how creating the right conditions for them to feel heard could result in them solving their own problems.

So how do we listen well? In my opinion, it starts with an open mind and an open heart. We want the other person to do the majority of the talking. Open questions, ie. those that can’t be answered in a single word, or a yes/no, are powerful, as well as reflecting back what we’re hearing, ie. using our words to let them know what we think they’re saying. Sometimes we won’t get it right but they can then set us straight and they’ll generally appreciate we had a go. Repeating the last few words can also be effective. Encourage them to keep speaking with words like “Tell me more …”

Then there’s all of the non-verbals that can make a difference, eg. eye contact (take your lead from them because people’s comfort with this differs), nodding, leaning in, an open and relaxed posture, sitting next to them rather than directly opposite and one of my favourites, silence. Getting comfortable with silence is a key listening skill. If we zip our lips we increase the chance that they will fill the silence so we can hear them more and create that sense of being seen and heard.

If you’re interested in sharpening up your listening skills, I highly recommend Oscar Trimbole’s “Deep Listening”, a valuable resource that you can likely read cover to cover in an hour or so.

Imagine the impact we can all have if we truly listen to the people we cross paths with in life. Such a great feeling.

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Donna Thistlethwaite is a Brisbane-based speaker and trainer specialising in mental health and resilience. She is an accredited Mental Health First Aid Instructor and Resilience at Work Facilitator with a passion for suicide prevention and for helping individuals, teams and organisations to THRIVE. You can find out about her next Mental Health First Aid courses here.

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