The art of listening

I’ve written quite a lot in this blog about the importance of putting other voices first – be it the voices that are usually marginalised; the people you are campaigning alongside; or your team and the people you’re seeking to grow and develop.

But this approach must go hand in hand with a genuine commitment to listen; to really hear what other people are saying and to be inspired, challenged and led. A simple and obvious statement, but not always easy in practice.

Let me explain.

Today was our first day at Future Leaders Connect. I’ve also written about the importance of vulnerability,* so to practice what I preach I am going to be honest with you: it was pretty overwhelming.

We started the day with an energetic session on storytelling from Theatre Director, Paul Bourne. Paul used the acronym EPIC to encourage us to tell stories that Engage, Persuade, Inform and Challenge.

Not only did we learn some practical skills on how to use storytelling to influence decision makers, it was also an enriching opportunity to hear many of the inspiring stories of my cohort.

However, this early directive to be EPIC set my mind racing.

But I’m NOT epic’. ‘But I don’t have any inspiring stories’. But I’ll sound like I’m showing off’’.

Wrapped up in this reaction is a whole host of Catholic-British-Gender-based anxiety. But – which crystallised for me later in the day – I had also entirely missed the point.

Yes, we all have permission to be heard. But sometimes, the best thing you can do is: sit back, listen and let others take up space.

It is easy when you’re on a programme called ‘Future Leaders Connect’, and you’re being told to be ‘EPIC’, to forget this and to instead feel anxious that you should immediately have lots of impressive things to say.

However, true leadership is also about making a conscious and positive choice to take up less space and to really listen. When you chose to be passive, you are also choosing to raise and empower the other people around you.

Cannon Sarah Snyder, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Adviser for Reconciliation reminded us of this towards the end of the day, when she led a powerful session on building dialogue and seeking ‘unity not uniformity’.

She termed this the Art of Listening’, which I think is apt as it is a process that requires emotional intelligence, imagination and skill.

In that room this morning I was – rightly –  having my privilege checked. The space wasn’t mine to take up. Instead, it was an opportunity to listen to and learn from some truly amazing people, which I almost blew.

Thankfully, I have eight more days to embrace the quiet life and be truly enriched by my time with these inspiring leaders.

*I should really stop talking about vulnerability without crediting Brene Brown who completely changed mine – and seemingly 35 million other people’s – perspective on this.


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