Jed Purses is a facilitator and listening skills trainer and coach. He specializes in building a durable and strong skill base for individuals, groups and teams to call on when they need to innovate together, find understanding in challenging situations, and navigate crisis or opportunity. For inquiries, contact him at .
"You'll sit and listen to me for free? Without interrupting me, telling me what I should do, or judging me?"
"That's what my sign says."
"I'm sitting down! Are you sure you want to do this?"
A few years ago, I found myself having this dialogue with people on a regular basis, as I sat near Lake Merritt in Oakland, CA with a sign that offered "Free Listening. No Advice. No Judgments. No Interruptions.""Free Listening. No Advice. No Judgments. No Interruptions."
After passersby read my sign, I often found them wanting assurance that I was not conducting an experiment, that I was not a therapist, nor was I trying to meet women. Rather, I was just happy to be present to those who wished to be heard.
After some consideration, people often walked away from me in disbelief of my authenticity, and for good reason. In my own best attempts to just take care of myself and those I care about, I've often forgotten the non-material part of taking care — presence and listening. My life can be so concerned with doing that I often forget to be with myself and others to allow and accept whatever is there to arise. In reflecting on my own life I can understand why others would find it hard to accept that I was just offering to listen without any expectation of some return.
As I continued showing up on Sundays to listen, both those who chose to sit with me and those who chose not to offered me several lessons that have become a basis for the work that enlivens me. First, I've learned that shame, this feeling that we have something to hide, holds so many of us back from living the life we want. Yet, what I found is that what is often seen as most personal and shameful is typically most widely experienced by other humans. Second, I learned that just being heard and witnessed for everything that we are is a very rare, sometimes scary but completely freeing experience. In offering just our attentive presence, not our idea of solutions, we can give this gift of freedom and space. Moreover, we all share the need to be heard in our authentic self-expression and in order to offer that gift to others, we need not be a therapist or a "healer," rather we just need to permit ourselves to understand others.
From these lessons I've come to deeply value listening and human presence and the power it has in influencing freedom, creativity, excitement, respect and understanding. As we listen curiously and feel free to express what's alive in us, we encourage others to listen and express their truth. If groups that work together genuinely listen to one another, collective values naturally emerge, along with excitement, creativity and true partnership.
In witnessing the power that listening has in freeing authentic expression, I wondered what my organizational life might be like if I and others felt the freedom and space to bring our whole selves to work, knowing we'd be held with respect, if collectively we knew how to receive one another. I wondered if our work environments truly valued diverse and multiple perspectives how much more complete and coherent outcomes might look. I wondered if our work and other environments encouraged and aided us in connecting and sharing quality time with our colleagues and how that might affect the quality of our work and our sense of loyalty.
With these questions and understandings in mind, I work to create workplace and community environments where members listen to each other from the part in them that permits themselves to simply be curious. I've learned that when we are genuinely curious, observing our inherent judgments and putting them aside, when we listen from that place, we move from trying to win a conversation or convince another (which we never fully do) towards understanding and shared values; we find alignment. If we are seeking aligned and inclusive group decisions with buy-in and durability, then as leaders and participants we must get curious with each other. This basic listening ethic is what informs the best of collaborative endeavors and the longest lasting relationships. In seeing people work with these ideals in various setting, I've learned this approach is not too soft for the profit driven, politically motivated or so-called "real world" environments, and it's not free of challenges.
To overcome these challenges, we must first turn the mirror of understanding on ourselves and realize that it takes commitment to the belief that we are always learning and growing into how to receive the experience of others and how to express our own experiences—the opportunity to practice and learn is endless.