Goodbye Grumblings

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A magical way to improve conversations

It’s not new, and it isn’t really magical — but it sure feels like the effects are magical. It’s common knowledge, really. So why devote a whole post to it? Because it’s worth repeating until it becomes second nature.

What is this (almost) magical thing? It’s simple:

Listen. Just listen. Listen properly.

I don’t mean listen the way I listen to the radio while doing dishes, or the way I sometimes listen to people talking about computers or cellphones, with only partial attention (sorry Husband and Thing One). I’m talking about listening actively, listening with focus, listening with intent.

I’m keen to talk about active listening because I had an experience this week that demonstrated clearly that it really works.

Over the years I’ve taken courses, I’ve read, I’ve done role-playing. I understood the principles and I agreed with t hem, but I didn’t feel the real power of  this tool the way I felt it this week.

I was preparing for a difficult conversation with someone and was concerned that it wouldn’t go well. Based on past experience, I knew that the conversation could easily get derailed. In the past, neither person in the conversation felt heard, and I was left feeling that it had been a failure.

After this latest conversation, however, something was different. I actually felt happy with how it had gone. At the end of the conversation, I felt that even though it had been intense, and not altogether pleasant at times, it had been controlled and civil. It felt like I had maintained my grown-up and professional behaviour throughout, and that was very, very satisfying.

My attitude and intention shaped the conversation

I thought and thought about it, and the biggest difference between this and previous conversations was my attitude when I went into it. I planned to, and did, start the conversation determined to listen for as long as necessary, determined to make sure that the other person had a chance to talk without interruption, determined that the other person would feel heard.

I had a few messages that I wanted to share, but I wrote them down and set them aside, and just listened. I bit down on retorts, arguments and opinions that sprang to mind. I concentrated on allowing that person plenty of time to say everything. I maintained eye contact and kept my hands in a neutral position, consciously keeping my posture open. I smiled occasionally and made those mmm-hmmm noises to show I was listening. I paraphrased to show I had understood. I kept my language non-judgemental even though I didn’t agree with everything that was said. And somehow, it all felt natural.

All of these things  are part of active listening. They showed the speaker that I was fully engaged.

The part where I talked went better than expected, and I’m convinced it’s because we started off with the other person seeing that I really was listening.

My theory is that the other person felt valued because I listened. By keeping my mouth shut and not arguing, I made space for the expression of emotion and grievances, which let things settle down instead of ramping up.

I’m actually excited and happy that after years of understanding what active listening is, I’ve finally learned how to use this powerful tool. I admit I’m happy in a face-palm kind of way, though. I can’t help thinking of conversations I’ve had over the years, conversations that didn’t always go very well, and imagining how much more meaningful and peaceful they could have been if I had stilled my tongue to listen instead of rushing into talking. This week, I’m grateful that I was able to experience the power of this technique in such a strong way. I plan to keep this one in the uppermost pocket of the bag of holding for a long while.

What makes up active listening

As a reminder to myself and anyone else who might need it, here are the five active listening strategies to keep in mind:

  1. Pay attention. Look at the other person and show that you’re attentive. Watch the other person’s body language for non-verbal meanings.
  2. Show that you are listening by nodding, smiling and having open body language. Use small, unobtrusive verbal prompts to encourage the other person to keep talking.
  3. Provide feedback to show you understood and confirm that it’s what the speaker meant. Ask questions, paraphrase, summarize.
  4. Defer judgement. Don’t interrupt! Let the speaker finish without any pressure.
  5. Respond appropriately. Be respectful and understanding. Realize that you are benefitting by getting information and someone else’s perspective.

Let’s build an army of napping dragons!

At this particular moment, I have a mental image of Grumblings the dragon napping in a hammock and looking very relaxed. With no grumbling happening, he can take a little vacation while people have their respectful conversations. The world would be a better place if we could remember more often to practise active listening. Imagine an army of contentedly snoring dragons!

Any other useful tips about listening? Did you have an aha moment when you realized that this thing actually works? Leave a comment or send an email to me at susan at I’d love to hear from you.



About GrumblingSusan

Word lover. Story addict. Daydreamer. Optimist. Ottawan. Treehugger. Scouter.

8 Replies

  1. Bradlee

    Thank you Susan! You have a refreshing voice when you write and your topics are perfect for reminding me about living with awareness! I liked this post a lot 🙂

    1. GrumblingSusan

      Thank you, Bradlee. That means a lot to me. Writing the posts is definitely helping me be more aware, and I’m happy that you find them helpful too!

  2. Debbie

    Very interesting, Susan. First Nations peoples use a “talking stick” to help facilitate the listening process. Given their strong oral culture, perhaps we can take a lesson from them. It’s interesting too, that the person holding the talking stick, touching the items that often decorate it, speak with greater honesty.

    1. GrumblingSusan

      Thanks for that lovely image, Debbie. It’s getting me thinking about symbols and how powerful are the tangible ones. We live so much in our heads… grounding ourselves in the physical helps focus, I think.

  3. I’m so pleased your anti-Grumblings skills paid off, and I love that you are celebrating this as the accomplishment it is!

    As for me, I am often mired in cynicism about techniques like active listening: sure they work for other people, but, I think to myself, there’s no way I can pull that off.

    Hearing of your success, I am genuinely impressed at your savoire-faire and self-knowledge. I am loudly applauding.

    1. GrumblingSusan

      Thank you! I was so excited to see the real difference active listening made in the conversation that I had to choose it as my topic. 🙂 I feel like the good effect in this case was mostly because of the listening, and I know you can pull that off. For me, I just had to decide that the other person was going to talk first, even if it meant I gnawed a hole in my tongue.

      1. Ah, yes, if beatification came through holey tongues, I would be well on my way.
        Oh, alright, maybe not. But consider the possibilities – ready-made stigmata.

        1. GrumblingSusan

          Here’s my question: can one get calluses on one’s tongue? 🙂

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