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Listening to Complaining: A Response to INC. Magazine

On Friday, October 21st,  Sidewalk Talk listeners took part in the The World Day of Listening. We lined up ten chairs in the heart of  downtown San Francisco at 4:30pm and eight of us offered to listen to anyone about anything with compassion.  

Our evening session in San Francisco was busier than we have ever been.  Afterward, we listeners were buzzing with the privilege of hearing people in all their authenticity.  It continues to astound me how a small amount of human kindness offered in this unexpected way on the street goes such a long way to raising consciousness about our connection to one another.

Listening is something we don’t do much in this fast pace, productivity focused, avoid-uncomfortable-emotions-at-all-costs, tech-consumed world we live in.  Yet it is essential to our lives and the functioning of our companies, communities, and politics.

On the train home, still sizzling from listening, the other shoe dropped.  I read an article in INC. by Jessica Stillman about complaining and how we should cut “complainers” out of our life. I felt a whoosh of anger and grief fill my chest and shoulders. This is exactly the kind of thinking that ripens the world for mental illness. Sidewalk Talk is trying to educate the public just how much listening matters by practicing listening on the streets of cities all over the world.

It is a total illusion that mental illness is just a problem that happens inside the individual sufferers. Mental illness is prolonged in how we all collectively relate to one another. Callousness, shunning, judging, isolating and not listening or relating spread the germs of mental illness to us all.

Compassionate listening is an antibiotic. I believe in my bones if we all learned compassionate listening skills we would not have the mental health crisis we have in modern society.  

Know that Ms. Stillman makes some good points about complainers.  The problem with her article is she offers the wrong solution.  Surface level listening to complaining is exhausting and can leave us feeling negative. This is precisely why workers who read her article need to learn compassionate listening skills – a slight twist on the utilitarian listening we often do in the workplace. If any of us wants to benefit from the wisdom in complaints or contribute to the health of organizations and their people, then we must learn to listen differently, not discriminate. We have a problem of listening, not complaining.

Companies have a lot to gain by harnessing the power of listening.  When companies listen with deeper compassion, employees feel empowered, managers create loyal, highly productive workers, companies gain vital knowledge from their workforce, and turnover goes down. The altruistic benefits are very real as well.  I have yet to be “infected” by the people I listen to on the sidewalks of San Francisco and I have never been “infected” by my psychotherapy clients. Instead, I feel honored.  I feel a deep sense of connection and belonging. And they feel valued and relieved and spread that feeling around.

The trouble is, listening like this takes time and skill.  But if we knew that it was a small investment that could benefit collective well-being, strengthen organizations, increase our self-efficacy, the payoff is hard to ignore.

Shirin Shoi, San Francisco psychotherapist said “Mindfulness [is the tool needed] for being present with hard feelings vs. getting caught inside them–because difficult emotions won’t just go away if you tell yourself to stop. And “negative” people only feel worse about themselves if we pathologize their feelings, [as Ms. Stillman’s article does].”

Colin Smith, a UK-based listener and coach, spent the World Day of Listening in Trafalgar Square London, offering Free Listening to anyone who wanted to feel heard.  In response he said listening to someone complaining is not the problem, but rather the challenge the listener faces in staying in the listening space without getting caught up by the story.  He said, “I find that by actively listening to the complaint, the speaker soon gets past their complaint and starts to share their real story, the real issues underneath their complaint, sometimes fear, sometimes pain, each conversation is different. How the listener responds is their issue not the speaker’s. We can allow the speaker to infect us if we get caught up by the story.”

Psyched on listening to complaining webinar-complain-3After many years in High Tech Sales and Business Development, I love visiting organizations like the ones who read INC. and teach them the skills they need to bring compassionate listening to their organization.  I am holding a FREE 25-minute webinar @ 4:00 pm, Thursday, Nov 10 to talk pragmatically about how to listen differently to complaining and hard feelings.  Humans struggle and compassionate listening is the remedy. Learn how to listen better. Register Here.

Complaining may feel uncomfortable but don’t buy what you hear in the media.  Judging complainers and casting them off harms rather than helps organizations and communities and directly impacts our collective mental health.  Moreover, complainers can be a mouthpiece for what isn’t being spoken.  We all need to listen better. We hope you will invest the time to learn these listening skills that can transform you, your community and your organization. If you want to get involved with Sidewalk Talk talk, a community listening project, learn more here.

Traci Ruble

Traci Ruble

Traci is a therapist and the CEO of PSYCHED & Managing Director of Sidewalk Talk. Her therapy work is centered around working with couples and individuals working on their relationships. Her many years in corporate life make her a good match for executives and leaders.

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