This is the time of year when my social media feeds become inundated with gift ideas ranging from colourful socks to cocktail making experiences, and sometimes combinations of the two. It’s also the time of year when festive smugness begins. “Oh, I started my Christmas shopping in September” accompanied by the baffled look of ‘haven’t you started yet?’ or the much worse, “I’ve already bought all my gifts” followed by a pause where I think I’m supposed to award them a certificate or a congratulatory gold cup engraved with ‘You’ve won at Christmas.’
I’d like to put forward an alternative gift idea for this Christmas. It doesn’t cost anything. It’s environmentally friendly and doesn’t require any wrapping. It could be a one-off gift or you could consider some form of subscription. It’s the gift of listening.
It’s been a challenging few years with friends, family and colleagues encountering all sorts of problems. Work. Financial worries. Health concerns. As good friends, we want to help them. We want to fix their problems. We want to reduce their pains. That’s what we do, don’t we?
However, an unintended consequence of this wanting to help people is that we are listening to each other less. Or rather, we are engaging in less listening where the intention is just to listen. No agenda. Just listening. Often, we can find ourselves listening and then thinking how we can help the other person. Often, we are listening but are still tethered to our own set of challenges.
Here are te common listening behaviours that you may recognise in yourself and/or others.
1. The well-meaning and helpful listener, often known as the ‘fixer’. When in conversation with this person you can often get the initial sense that you’re being listened to. However, the fixing tendencies then emerge and the ‘fixer’ gives lots of well-intentioned advice about how to remedy whatever it was you were talking about or give you tips for fixing your problem.
It’s important to note that you may not even have a problem but the ‘fixer’ will find a way to give you support in how to generally improve your lot in life!
2. The sympathetic listener, often known as the ‘nodding donkey’.
This person listens intently. Just when you feel that you have been listened to, they then tell you about their similar experiences. This sharing of experiences can make the listener feel that they have provided a much-needed dose of empathy in the conversation but it can actually make the other person feel less listened to. At its worst, it can feel that the person’s experiences aren’t valid.
Some nodding donkeys can also occasionally enjoy a game of one upmanship where their experiences far outweigh yours.
3. The distracted listener, often known as the ‘meerkat’.
This person tries really hard to listen but their mind, and often their fingers, are still connected to their tech. The meerkat roams wild on Zoom and Teams calls. You’ll notice that the meerkat listener’s head will remain static as they try to maintain a façade of focus while their eyes keep darting down to their phone. Sometimes you’ll also see their glasses light up with the reflection of the phone that they are looking at.
In the face to face to world, the meerkat will often hold their phone or keep it next to them like a mini rectangular comfort square. They’ll listen to you but their mind is permanently anchored to the thought that someone may contact them at any point and/or that they need to stay connected. They are never fully 100% in the moment of your conversation.
So if you’re looking for a low cost high impact gift this year, may I recommend a listening gift? Listening without any intent is the best way I know of to build and maintain trust with another person. It’s like human glue, connecting people and sticking them together. Listening without intent is the equivalent of putting trust coins in your piggy bank.
So, if you’re looking for a gift that won’t break the bank but that builds up your trust savings, just listen.
You don’t need to fix other people or share your stories.
Make them the centre of your listening universe.