Music is the silence between the notes

If you know the quote, you will know that it is attributed to the French composer, Claude Debussy, although there are similar phrases attributed to others from Mozart to Miles Davis.  The beauty of music and its emotional outpouring comes not just from the notes, or sounds, but from the silence.

John Cage, an American 20th century composer, took this to the ultimate conclusion with his infamous 4’33”, a piece consisting entirely of silence; not just silence, but musicians sitting with their instruments for 4 minutes 33 seconds without playing.

Most musicians didn’t take it that far, but we can all probably think of music where pauses or a period of silence help create the beauty.  Even as I write this, I’m listening to a piano and cello combo where the relaxation is created as much by the gaps as by the flowing music.   And not just beauty or relaxation: listen to the end of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in the Messiah and experience the climatic pause before the final ‘Hallelujah.’  And not to focus purely on classical: Led Zeppelin fans will know the power of the 4 second pauses throughout ‘Good Times, Bad Times.’

And not just in music.  Professional speakers know well the power of a carefully placed pause and are as in control of their silences as they are of their words, using them to dramatic effect.  And even in art: Johannes Vermeer, the 17th century Dutch artist, probably most known for his ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring,’ produced a painting called ‘Maid asleep at the Table’, currently hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he removed a man from the room, the empty doorway leaving his final masterpiece with a suggested message rather than the earlier overt one.

The phrase ‘silence is golden’ is one we are all familiar with, but perhaps not with the original, complete, version: ‘speech is silver, silence is golden.’  The origin of the phrase is unclear, although its known that its first use in English was in 1831. Put that phrase together with Debussy’s and we see that meaning doesn’t just come from noise: it comes from the whole, including the silences, however long or short.  Pauses where we can see the speaker’s thought processes continuing on; pauses where the speaker is hesitating, unsure; silence where the speaker has finished speaking and we allow the silence to roll on, to feel the weight of what has been spoken.  I’m not referring to listening to professional speakers here necessarily, but neighbours, colleagues, people we meet who tell us something on their heart, or recount a story.

A barrier for many of us is that we are uncomfortable with silence: we fill it – in our head if not out loud – or assume they’re done and walk away.  But developing an ease with silence is something we can work on – we can hone our ability to hear the golden pauses as well as the words of silver.

So here’s this week’s suggestion: see how long you let other people’s pauses linger before leaping in; count how many seconds go by between you asking a question then offering your own answer; find out how long you can sit in silence with someone before starting to feel uncomfortable.  And the challenge?  Add on another 5 seconds and see what difference it makes to some of those interactions.

Music is in the notes, just as speech is in the words…………………………………………………………… but also in the silence.


Sorry for your Loss

Such a simple statement!  Full of meaning or an easy throw-away comment?

Last Friday we scattered my mum’s ashes amongst the rose garden at the crematorium – her choice: simple, beautiful and uncomplicated to achieve.  We looked around the gardens; asked the colour of the roses in the various beds; looked for one that wasn’t already busy with others’ memorials & mementos as mum never liked to feel crowded, then gathered around a yellow peace rose garden as a family to fulfil mum’s last request.  The funeral had been 3 months ago, but this felt more final, poignant; a stark reminder that we all return to dust.

And it gave me cause to reflect on the last few months; the power of people listening, being there, unobtrusive, but letting me know I could talk if I wanted to.  Mostly I didn’t, or just a sentence or two; occasionally I did, pouring out whatever I was thinking at the time.  And the experience has shown me the power of listening in a new light.  I already knew that creating space for someone enables them to open up.  I knew that giving time was a powerful way to demonstrate understanding.  What I hadn’t appreciated is how powerful the simple, easy-to-do, actions could be.  How effective a simple ‘I’m sorry’ could be; how powerful a few seconds silence in case I wanted to speak could be; how beautiful a quick hug before moving on with our day and focusing on the issue at hand.

It has given me greater confidence for expressing empathy to others: not to worry so much about saying the right thing, having lots of wise words to say, being hugely supportive.  I have discovered that human connection is often demonstrated in the simplest ways.

Next time you’re faced with someone experiencing difficulty, loss or grief, relax, be genuine, make a simple statement: “So sorry” – in my experience, those few words pack a punch.

Your boots are made for walking

red boots2As a student the first thing I bought with my new student grant was a pair of red boots.  And one of my happiest purchases a few years ago was in Cork: a heavily discounted pair of pink suede boots.  My love of colourful footwear doesn’t just include boots: reading the feedback sheets from the all-male delegates at a corporate training event recently I smiled at a comment on one of the sheets: ‘PS. fantastic shoes!’  But what does this all have to do with listening?

Feet!  That’s where the last post ended: listening with our feet!! This may not be something that immediately springs to mind but its probably a concept we’ve all heard: not judging until we’ve “walked a mile in someone else’s shoes.”  In other words, empathy.  We  talk about it; say how important it is – but what is it and how easy is it in reality?

The Oxford definition of empathy is ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’ as opposed to sympathy, defined as ‘feeling sorry or pity for….’  Understanding by imagining what its like to be them or trying to see things from their perspective.

It’s easy to assume that having experienced a similar situation ourselves can be helpful: I can imagine how you feel being made redundant because I’ve experienced it.  But even that is fraught with difficulties because feelings and experiences are so personal aren’t they? I felt angry so I imagine you feel angry but maybe you feel sad, or even happy. And recent studies have suggested that if we have experienced something similar we’re less likely to show compassion  to others not more ( (Harvard Business Review)).  This seems counter-intuitive, but if we’re looking at their situation through our past experience, we’re still looking at it from our perspective: how we felt, how we coped, what helped us at the time and projecting it onto them.  We’re actually wearing our shoes whilst walking through their experience – and it doesn’t matter how far we walk, we’re still wearing our shoes!

This suggests that empathy is much harder than we realise.  It’s not about whether we’ve experienced it or not: either could be a help or a hindrance.  Its about whether we can imagine how the other person is feeling in the experience they’re having or have had.  Surely this is what it means to truly walk in another’s shoes.

So how do we do it?  We focus.  We don’t think about how we would feel in that situation but we listen and observe: how is this person feeing in that situation?  What are they saying?  What feelings are they expressing?  We look for the clues and avoid putting words or feelings into their mouth.

And like any skill, it develops with practice.  So next time you pull on your favourite pair of boots, pick up the empathy challenge.  And when someone talks to you about something that is going on, stop and consider what it must look like from their perspective.

In any language

listen symbol‘To listen’ in Chinese.  This is no secret (type ‘chinese listening symbol’ into google images and see what comes up) and has captured the attention of many: counsellors, psychologists, artists.  I did some extra reading wanting to check that this is rooted in truth and not just a listening myth, great as it is, that has developed over the years.  But those that are more knowledgeable than me assert that Chinese writing consists of characters that represent ideas, combining different elements that are characters in their own right.  And all seem to agree that the ideas used to represent listening are profound: ears, eyes, attention and heart.

I listen to you with my ears.  Obviously, listening is about using our ears but what does this mean?  How is listening different to hearing?  What turns noise into something that we understand?  I guess its the other symbols that start to differentiate the two: eyes, attention, & heart.

I listen to you with my eyes.  I listen by looking at you.  I listen by focusing on you.  If I can’t see you I listen by turning my eyes away from other things that would distract.  If I can see you I listen by noticing your body language and silent signals.  I listen by being observant.  I pass people I know all the time because I’m focused on my destination or in a world of my own.  My husband comments on things we pass that I haven’t seen: he’s so much more observant than I am.  And observing is seeing, and seeing is noticing.  And those that see, that notice, are those that look again, and focus, and become those that listen to the messages and respond.  We’ve probably all heard of Moses whatever our view about the story’s origin: read the story and you start to notice that he lives in a culture for years, then one day he ‘sees’ the injustice going on around and a totally new journey opens up for him.

I listen to you by giving you my undivided attention.  Ever hung out with someone that always leaves you feeling like a million dollars?  Someone who’s interested in what you’ve been up to, what you’re thinking?  Someone who asks your view on things, your opinion on something that’s happening? But more than that, they want to hear about what’s important to you at the moment?

So let’s switch off the phone, twitter, email, instragram, whatsapp; close our laptop, book, newspaper, kindle; turn off the TV or turn away from its flickering images….  As I list the distractions I start to realise how difficult it is to give someone undivided attention, even for a short while.  And yet those that are good at it don’t need a separate space.  I saw a parent friend in the park recently: a busy day, lots of people around, and he was sitting on the grass with his two small children, all engrossed in quiet conversation, oblivious to the chatter going on around them.  A bubble of family intimacy & undivided attention.

I listen to you with my heart.  What does that mean?  Do we have to love them in order to listen effectively? Well yes and no I guess, depending on your definition of love. There’s a vast divide between being listened to with judgement and listened to with acceptance. Doesn’t mean we agree with everything being said but it does mean we value their contribution.  I guess we’re talking about empathy, putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and there we have another part of the body involved in listening: the feet!  Who knew?!

But let’s save that for another time.  For now, will you join me in turning our hearing into listening and focusing on the listening element that is the biggest challenge for you?  Let me know how you get on….

Let’s Listen

20140819_114514“I don’t know what I’m going to say.”  Often the first thing heard when someone is given space to talk, particularly if they’ve come for a ‘listening appointment’ and told they have up to 50 minutes.  “I don’t know where to start” is another one.  And thirdly, “I might cry.”

How strange we find it, being given space to be listened to.  How often the first words uttered are apologetic, uncertain, testing whether this really is a safe place to say what’s on our mind.  Remember the kleenex advert?  Man on a bench with a box of tissues inviting people to sit and tell him anything.  Not so strange as it sounds.  Most of us have loads of stuff we could talk about if given the opportunity.  Sharing what’s on our mind: something we remember, something that concerns us, something we don’t understand, something funny, sad, unusual.  Trying to make sense of feelings, thoughts, unexpected emotions.

But once people start, the words often flow.  Stumbling, stuttering, then gathering speed until trying to stop them would be a bit like holding up a waterfall.  Doesn’t have to be 50 minutes – could be 10 or 2.  And doesn’t have to be a ‘listening appointment’ – unexpected focus and attentiveness works wonders.  And doesn’t have to be in a particular place – kitchen tables and coffee shops make great listening spaces.   As do car journeys, long walks and even painting fences.

And it doesn’t take much – an open question that invites a response; an observing comment that doesn’t change the subject; silence that isn’t immediately filled; focus, time, care.

“Is that the time?”  Often heard in the 49th minute.  “I can’t believe I’ve talked for so long!”  And the waterfall is more like a pool: a little bit clearer and a little bit more manageable.  And even if short-lived, often long enough to make one decision, take one action, or just breathe a little bit easier knowing themselves to be heard.

So how about we all try to listen a bit more this week?  Ask 1 person every day a question that you follow up with another question rather than with your own thoughts.  Give 1 person every day your full attention for more than a moment.  Listen to someone you normally dismiss and see what happens.  And don’t forget to let me know how it goes…

Actions speak louder….

20140322_090930We will all have been impacted by recent news stories and events surrounding people fleeing their homes and seeking refuge elsewhere.  It can all feel a bit overwhelming, seeing the photos and interviews, hearing the politicians’ debates, assessing our own reactions and those of others around us. What difference can we make?  Does our opinion or action count for anything?

In 2014, the Coventry prize for International Peace & Reconciliation was given to Thérèse Mema Mapenzi for a project in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Therese had never heard of the prize.  The project? A Listening Room where victims of rape and war violence could speak and be listened to without fear of judgement.  The accounts are heartbreaking, but she spoke simply of the people scarred by their experiences: “they have no interest in the greater politics of it all – they just need someone to listen to what they’ve been through.” (Independent 4/9/2015)

I find it amazing that the simple act of listening could prove so healing and restorative to so many.  And yet Thérèse must have started listening long before she set up the Listening Room.  She must have listened to stories that filtered through; to signs of hopelessness & despair.  She must have listened with her eyes as well as her ears, seeing what was going on in the villages she visited, and choosing to notice.

For sometimes actions speak louder than words.  The pictures we have seen of a washed up child scream louder than any speech or rhetoric.  The very act of putting your whole family into an overcrowded boat to cross the sea surely speaks as loud as any megaphone.

And whilst feeling overwhelmed with all the arguments, and the politics, and the enormity of the crisis, I guess one place to start is to listen.  This kind of listening requires no subtleties, no special skills, no particular insight: just a willingness to notice, to ‘see,’ and to take some simple actions of our own.  Thérèse’s listening led to a Listening Room: our listening may lead to a signed petition, a letter to our MP, a donation, a car journey.  Who knows where it may lead?  Maybe at some time in the future there will be Listening Rooms for those who’ve been through such ordeals: for now, let’s choose to ‘see,’ to notice and let that inform our actions.  Let’s take a moment to listen to the actions being played out in front of us each and every day and let Thérèse Mema Mapenzi be our inspiration.

You just listen?

spaceListening is easy, right? Something we all do every day, all the time?  Probably not. Most of us spend hours trying to recall names and info.  And when others talk we quickly interrupt with our own stories, or give the appearance of listening whilst planning in our head what we’re going to say as soon as its our turn!  “When people talk, really listen.  Most people never listen!” Ernest Hemingway.

Even after completing Listening training I was cynical: could listening really be enough?  Is it possible to switch off the perpetual need to fix? But after 7 years of providing a listening service at a medical centre, and reading incredible listening stories,  I am convinced of its power to give dignity to others and to empower.  Of course there is a need for a range of provision for the experiences we encounter in life, but listening has something of real value to add into the mix.

This blog explores that value; the skills needed to listen well; the stories of people listening or being listened to; and the day-to-day adventure of giving another person the space to talk, really talk, by taking the time to really listen.

Why not join me on the journey!