Listening: The Most Important Element in Any Kind of Relationship
What do you remember the most about your favorite teacher or your most inspiring boss?
Was it their titles? Maybe how fast they typed on the computer?
What about how he or she made you feel?
The brain can only focus on one thing at a time. We try to multitask, but we aren’t successful at it. This is important to know because the amygdala, the part of the brain that activates whenever we feel threatened, has priority over other areas of the brain. It literally can “hijack” the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex – the executive part of the brain. When hijacked, the brain’s activities prioritize focusing on dealing with the hijack, for example, perceived threats and stressors.
In the context of education this is critical to understand, Think about it. It means that children who feel insecure, threatened, and stressed are less able to focus. This short-circuit–defensiveness caused by an amygdala hijack tamps down parts of the brain known to activate curiosity, see opportunities, engage with experimentation or take small risks, to be innovative, and to seek change. Research shows that for children to develop well, explore the world, and learn, they need to feel safe.
In the case of the workplace, this means that employees are less able to be curious because they will be focusing on external threats, they will wish to take fewer risks for fear to the consequences of failing, decreasing their chances of professionally and personally growing and killing creativity and efficiency in their work.
Dr. Richard Davidson once said during the five-day event entitled “Reimagining Human Flourishing,” organized by the Mind & Life Institute, that “one of the fascinating things that we’ve learned in science is that when we are exposed to adversity, it actually diminishes the plasticity of the brain. It down-regulates genes that are responsible for plasticity itself, and so the very mechanisms of learning are impaired.” An environment that lacks safety keeps a person in a survival mode, driven by fear, constantly scanning the environment for potential threats.
Teachers and leaders then – and any other person who wishes to lead a team or a group of people – must be able to create first, a feeling of safety and trust within children and employees, if they wish to limit the brain’s wiring for defensiveness, allowing them to take risks, learn, and do new things, and ultimately to unleash their full potential.
But, how do we cultivate trust?
There are multiple ways to create trust within a group of people, but the most efficient, natural and sustainable way of creating trust is through your relationship with the individual who you are trying to inspire or teach, which will always be determined by the quality of your listening. No matter if we talk about a teacher-student relationship, a boss-employee relationship, or a girlfriend-boyfriend relationship, the key to creating the highest quality possible in any kind of relationship is to practice deep, empathic, and nonjudgmental listening. A crucial quality of emotionally intelligent people.
When I write practicing deep, empathic, and nonjudgmental listening, I mean far more than collecting data with our ears whenever another person is talking about their problems and expressing their emotions, especially the negative ones. Emotionally intelligent teachers and leaders recognize other adults or children’s emotions and recognize interactions with them as opportunities to use their eyes to watch for physical evidence of their emotions such as body language, facial expressions, and gestures, but also to use their hearts to feel what the other person or child is feeling.
Deep, empathic and nonjudgmental listening means to use words to reflect, in a soothing, noncritical way, what the teacher or leader have just heard in order to label the speaker’s emotions and to help him or her navigate through them. This kind of listening doesn’t just mean listening to words, but also making sure that the listener is focusing on the speaker’s needs and objectives, forgetting for a moment their opinions of the situation and their own needs. This way, the child or the employee will feel listened to and will understand that his or her feelings, needs, and opinions are valid, understood and respected.
Isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we all want to tell our worries, our needs or our story and not be judged?
Remember that neither emotions nor thoughts can be fully controlled. Therefore, the goal is to explore, understand, and use emotions, not to suppress them.
By practicing deep, empathic and nonjudgmental listening, children and employees will feel listened to and respected, as well as feel that they can trust the teacher or the leader with their feelings, their challenges and their problems. They will know that the teacher or the leader of the team is not going to criticize them or tear them down for feeling negative emotions or having difficult thoughts. When a student or an employee has a problem, they will come to the teacher or leader because they know they offer more than sermons and lectures, and because they feel listened to, they will feel respect for the listener, which will translate into a trusting and caring relationship between them.
Deep, empathic and nonjudgmental listening > Trust > Respect > Learning and Inspiration
Teachers need to inspire so children can learn from them in an efficient and sustainable way. And in the business world, nowadays, we can only obtain our objectives through and with people. Therefore, if we want to thrive, we need people to thrive with us. To do so, in either of the cases, we need to create the highest quality of connection possible with our peers, people who we lead or teach, and our relationships in general, so we can create trust, love, respect, and be able to motivate, teach and inspire others.
These are the teachers and bosses who are remembered. These are the leaders who change lives.