Saturday 24th July is the Samaritans Awareness Day (available 24/07), and they are promoting their simple and powerful campaign inviting us to pledge to become better listeners. Their three ingredients? ‘To listen without distraction, without interruption and to check in with how ‘loved ones’ really are’.

We know that relationships in the workplace can have a powerful influence on our levels of psychological health, for better or worse. The way that we listen in working relationships, and the quality of listening for an organisation overall, can potentially help to make the difference between a working environment that promotes health, and one that unintentionally deepens individual experiences of isolation, powerlessness and exposure to events beyond their control. At a time when the wider climate for all of us is one filled with change and uncertainty, workplaces present a real opportunity to make the best possible use of an apparently  simple but hugely powerful human resource – listening.

Samaritans’ 3 pledges are connected to a specific focus on mental health and wellbeing, and the kind of listening that is powerful, protective and preventive in that context. And of course, some of that kind of listening is needed and relevant in the workplace – there are times when what is needed, either from a colleague or from a manager, is someone to listen to our account of emotional or mental distress, in exactly the focussed, respectful and interested way that their pledges describe. But  the way we listen (or don’t) in the  workplace in all of our interactions can also have a significant impact on mental wellbeing whether or not that is the specific focus of the conversation, and some of the same principles apply.

So what the Samaritans call ‘listening without distraction’ in a workplace context includes all those contacts between colleagues and managers where you have made a commitment to have contact, and to share views/information/experiences, or to make a decision together. And being ‘distracted’ means that somehow the focus can’t be sustained on your work together. The distractions could be practical ones – keeping an eye on emails during a video call, answering a phone call during a meeting. They could also be ‘internal’ distractions; other pressures that are preoccupying and draw attention away from the current interaction. Sometimes our own personal or professional agenda about the way a conversation should go can  distract from really listening to what is being said.  We can also be distracted from hearing a conversation because we are  too influenced by  our own  biases and expectations about each other. The conversation we expect to have with someone in a particular role or part of the organisation can be louder than the one we are actually having, and that can stop a real   exchange and the possibility of new ideas and understanding.

The feelings in these uncomfortable moments of not being listened to  can be frustration, exposure, shame, unimportance – and like most uncomfortable feelings they are part of life and can be managed in small amounts, but become more problematic if that lack of focussed attention is repeated multiple times and becomes part of the culture of an organisation. And for the person who is facing all these distractions, there’s likely to be a decreasing sense of trust, value  and enjoyment in their working relationships with others. Taking the risk to find ways to reduce both practical and ‘internal’ distractions when it is possible can make a real difference to the quality of collaborative work  – probably more effective than offering more time of less focussed listening.

Listening without interruption’  is harder than it sounds, because often we interrupt when what we are listening to is hard to hear. It might be something that we feel is wrong and want to correct, or to defend  ourselves – or something that we think is heading towards a potential conflict. It might be something that we find very painful to know about, and we feel  an urgent need to  help (or to be protected from the impact of what we are hearing). In the workplace, it can be very difficult to remember that simply listening, and really taking in what somebody is saying,  is  very powerful in terms of what it offers to others. As a chronic interrupter, I have to try and remind myself that it’s not the end of the world to have to wait until the right moment to either take a different view, or offer reassurance, or try to take the conversation in a different direction.

In working relationships, interrupting can be a tussle for power, or an expression of competition –  or feeling urgent pressure to try and find a solution. For managers, it can be a huge challenge to be ready to listen without interruption to someone who is unhappy about their work or the working relationship. It can be hard to feel that there is any good purpose in listening to perceptions that you are sure are wrong or unfair, or not offering a solution the minute you think you can see one, or not trying to head someone off if the direction they are going in seems to be completely at odds with the direction and focus of the work of the team or organisation. But what we know from therapeutic work and from study of our earliest relationships is that something very powerful happens  between people when someone else is ready to make mental space to  hear our distress or anger  without having to rush into either defensive or anxious action – just that. Listening to someone’s frustration doesn’t mean that  you will be able to take it away – but there is a risk you can add to it if you either take centre stage by justifying your  position, or by rushing in with solutions.  

‘Checking in with how people really are’  seems pretty obvious – but the ‘really’ is key here. Particularly since the pandemic, a lot of businesses and organisations talk about the importance of ‘checking-in’ but there is a risk that it becomes a bit of a ritual, rather than a moment of real, genuine curiosity about how people are – how they really are.  Being open  and ready to hear what you don’t know is central – a checking-in that allows for peoples’ diversity of experience can allow for important conversations to happen in the workplace.  But it does mean being ready to be unsettled about how your organisation works and what you can do about it  – if you hear that ‘how somebody really is’ includes feeling distressed and stirred up by experience of  racist or homophobic comments, for example.  Probably the most important aspect of ‘checking-in’ in a workplace context is that it doesn’t become a ‘shop-window’ moment that looks great on the outside but might not necessarily  have much stock once you get inside!   Check in because listening is active and helpful, and because it will be done without distraction and interruption,  and because having listened, your working relationships are improved – otherwise it becomes an empty ritual that potentially leaves people feeling even more isolated or  unheard.

There is one more listening pledge that could really help in the workplace –  listening to yourself. This is really important in two ways. First, listen to how you are feeling, how you are looking after yourself today, what you need from others and how you might find that. And second, and even more important, try to listen to how you interact with others – how well are you listening, what stops you, what distracts you or causes you to interrupt, or means that you don’t, meaningfully, check in with others on how they really are? You won’t always like what you hear when you listen to yourself  – but the more all of us can listen to what we say, and to what’s going on inside us to make us say the things we say, the healthier the workplace can become.   As long as we can listen, as individuals or organisations, we can learn.