Opinion #4: Counselling, tutoring, listening and why so many institutions fail at it.

Students and school pupils are going through a very tough time in these months of global pandemic and weeks of necessary street protest against racism, discrimination and (police) violence. Something that keeps coming up is the need to listen. Yet it seems to be the key quality at which we fail, even in schools and universities. How come? It is baked into these institutions.

Listening is an act

If I want to talk about why, as a society, we have become so bad at listening I think I should first talk about what listening actually is. Superficially, listening seems to be just not talking while letting the other talk. Easy to do right?

Yes, that is easy to do but that is not listening. Just not talking is a passive action while listening is an active action. When you listen to someone you don’t show this by doing nothing. After all, if the bar were that low even stones could listen for they definitely share the property of just not talking to you while you talk at them. There is the key: at them. The passivity of just not talking makes the other talk at you and negates the aspects of the dynamic that create listening.

The unintentional intent of listening

In reality, for you to be truly listening to someone you need to have an intent to listen. It doesn’t come by itself from inaction in speaking. Thus we arrive at one of the hardest aspects of the act of listening: you need an intent to listen but no intent with listening. The reason why this is so crucial is the following: people generally only start to feel they are being heard, or listened to, when it is beyond question they are controlling the agenda. They don’t even need to know what their agenda is. When you as an active listener have an intent with listening then it means you also have an agenda. The creates a threshold for those who come to speak to you about there agenda and a barrier for those who come to speak to you while not knowing what their agenda is.

In the best case the speaker notices you have an agenda and the listening-aspect is lost. The meeting turns into a conversation of agenda’s. That can still be useful but it is not listening. In the worst case the other is unaware of your agenda and, well, then to me this constitutes manipulation at least and abuse at worst. This kind of manipulative listening is far more common then you perhaps think. It is the ‘friend’ who only listens to you because it makes them feel appreciated. It is the opponent who only listens to you to identify points on which he can attack you. It is the abusive partner who will use against you tomorrow what they hear you say in while vulnerable today.

The purpose of listening

Now you might wonder: if you are supposed to have no intent with listening then what is the point of listening? This however is a question not about the purpose of listening but about power! You having no intent with listening means that if the interaction is to have any purpose, any aim, then this needs to come from the one you are listening to.

If you are an active intentionless listener then it is the other who has full control over the agenda. It also is the other who determines purpose, success and failure of the interaction. For many people who want to listen it is extremely hard and draining to put themselves into that situation. They are simply not used to it, or struggle to go into an interaction in which they feel they have no control over how to do it right.

I need to say something about the desire of people who listen to do it right. No matter how noble the motive to do it right is, no matter how understandable it is that well-intended people want this, it is a reflection of their need for affirmation and/or control. It fails to be a reflection of the needs of the person they are listening to. As an active intentionless listener you have to accept from the first second of the interaction that your entire activity can result in an undefinable failure and appear to third parties as a waste of your time.

How not to do it wrong

That you as a listener need to bury your desire to do it right, does not mean that you equally bury the desire to avoid doing it wrong. But wrong is not defined as an absence of success, wrong is defined, in this context, as causing harm. You will not be able to help everyone you are listening to. You are able to prevent harming them.

The simplest harm you can do to people you listen to is imposing your agenda on them. In the best case that reverses your role from listener to the speaker. In the worst case that results in you defining what their ‘problems’ are and then ‘solving’ those problems for them. That can at best make the interaction meaning- and worth-less but at worst it reinforces negative self-images, trauma and a deteriorating sense of self-worth. In all cases it leaves the other, sooner or later, with the realization they haven’t been heard.

Now I can say a lot more about how and how-not to listen. But I will keep that for another post. I will raise one more aspect before I come to why our society and its institutions fail so terribly at listening.

So what to do without an agenda and without an aim?

People so much desire a method to follow when listening, such as active listening or reflective listening. I would say, all these things are useful as tools but they are not a method. Methods tend to make listening mechanical and strip the interaction of a necessary characteristic. If your listening is to be helpful for the speaker, you will need to be vulnerable. If you allow yourself to be ‘visibly’ vulnerable it will lower the threshold for the speaker to also be vulnerable. Oddly, perhaps, things humans most want to be heard by others are often things they least want to talk about.

For a speaker to feel free to be vulnerable requires a sense of safety. If the listener shares the vulnerability that sends a signal that you feel you are in an environment where you can safely do so. This will require you to speak, not excessively but sufficiently. If your speaker struggles with religious issues a few short sentences from your side can reveal that you can empathise with such issues. If your speaker struggles with hate, racism and discrimination towards them, a few relevant reveals about you can show you can empathise with such issues. Show, don’t tell. Ask yourself this: if someone tells you “they can be trusted”, do you trust them? If someone tells you something that shows they trust you, does that raise your trust in them?

If you know you cannot empathise with certain issues, or if you can only show your empathy by telling people you empathise, then kindly reveal that! It may end the ‘listening’ and prevent the other from speaking about it … but that is for the better because you likely would be the wrong listener.

What is a good outcome

A good outcome of listening to a person is when that person discovers a good or useful aspect about having talked to you. That realization may come during the interaction, immediately afterwards, or sometimes only years afterwards and sometimes never. Sometimes a person simply needs to speak their mind, to someone who listens, for them to uncover what it is they really think or feel. Often there is no need for your interpretation, your judgement, your advice. Your gift to the person you listen to is your time, your attention and your empathy. Sometimes you will barely speak during a ‘good conversation’, sometimes you will speak quite a lot. But almost without exception, after a good conversation with someone, where you are the listener, you will feel some of their pain, some of their tiredness, some of their sadness or joy and you will carry some of that weight on your shoulders. You will need to take time to recover from that. If you don’t you either won’t last long, or you didn’t do it right.

Why modern society and its institutions are so bad at listening!

When I was 14, I was called into a principals office because of my lousy school-results. When asked why my marks in maths and physics were so bad despite me being such an astronomy fan, why I constantly failed at German and French, all I could utter, close to tears, was that I deeply felt I didn’t learn anything worthwhile at school. I stared at the principals face and told him my pet dog had taught me more valuable things during the past years than school had. She drew a blank and the conversation was over. Years later I went back there to tell them I was doing a theoretical Physics PhD at a German university … there was still a blank.

Looking back at it later, it dawned on me that my 14-year old self was telling my Principal that he felt utterly unheard in her school. The school’s agenda dominated everything but I was unable to comply with their agenda. Not out of wanton stubbornness but because my desire to learn, my talent, my strengths, my weaknesses or my curiosity (and my lack of discipline) all did not matter. I was not part of the agenda. For many fellow pupils this mattered less, for me that mattered more.

Now I tell this story this not as an argument. It is however an illustration of what tends to happen in institutions: they set their agenda’s and, in the best case, they do so for your best interest, for your sake. At least so they believe. The moment you no longer share that belief you end up struggling and, often times, you end up in pain.

Nowadays agendas are literally everywhere. As a Departmental Tutor my university bombards me with agendas they want me to meet. In fact, they view my work “talking to students” as part of their agenda and they would prefer if I would keep detailed records of what, when and how often. Every student becomes a “case” and every meeting a “contact-moment” or “engagement point“. Institutions hire some people to listen to their students, but they also tell them with which intent they need to listen to these students. It destroys the very nature of the interaction I defined above as listening.

Senior-management nincompoops in most institutions would prefer to have all meetings, meeting-purposes and meeting-outcomes neatly quantified. On Open Days, or when they meet those they are accountable to, they want to be able to say we did so much of this, so many of that, and the result was that X% of these made it to become Y% of those. It is a fake-reality without value that causes real harm and hurt in the unseen depths of their staff and student populations. A fact they only see in the form of mental health statistics and to which they respond with more of the same. The arsonists run the fire-department!

Why am I still doing this stuff?

I love to listen. At my university I can, as long as I manage to listen more to the students that come to see me than to the people running the place. For some students I am the wrong listener, and I apologise for that although it won’t change I am afraid. Some students perhaps should come to talk but don’t because they believe I will simply use my “method” with the intent to tick the boxes of my superiors (who have communicated that to them on Open Days, for example). I am sorry about that to but … I can’t listen to people who don’t come.

Some perhaps come with the expectation I will fix their issue or problem only to find out that not only am I not following recipe’s, I don’t hand recipe’s out either. I am sorry for that too … but as a person who is strongly deficient in following recipe’s I am the least qualified person to hand them to you.

But I love to hear students, actively listen, intently without intention, and let them set the agenda. So yes, my meetings occasionally overrun, and I don’t mean by like 10 minutes, more like hours. I have had single appointments starting at 1h pm and finishing only at 6h30 pm. I have also had great meetings with students that lasted just 5 minutes. I can never promise I can do a lot for a student … but I can listen and I will try hard to do something.

How do I resolve that?

So how do I deal with the fact that what institutions like mine want is so contradictory to what I believe listening really is? So contradictory that many students intuitively recognizes that what their institution or school advertises as listening, really isn’t.

That is easy … it is something I learned from my pet Beagle, “Roger”, when I was 14. He never cared much for agendas, he was just himself and either you took him that way or you didn’t. And if you didn’t then that was your problem. When I see the shedload of senseless agendas cobbled together by managerial bureaucrats under orders from clueless senior-management … I just go “Roger that”. What saddens me though are the universe of missed opportunities that these institutional structures create. What angers me is the real-world damage that it does that we have become so bad, as institutions and societies, at listening to people, at hearing them.

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