I had the privilege of facilitating a workshop at an hotel in Franschhoek in a beautiful setting in the winelands of South Africa. A lady, who had lost her father in an unfortunate motor vehicle accident just two weeks prior to the workshop, attended – I felt, rather bravely. She explained to me that she wanted to use the course material as a means to debrief the emotion of her loss. As it was a public workshop, people attending from different companies from all over the region, she knew none of her fellow delegates. By day two, she had plucked up enough courage to share her experience over tea with the group. We were all standing around in a circle and people were hushed as she spoke of her pain caused by this unfortunate incident. One of the guys, at that precise moment, interrupted her, and said: “You think that’s bad, I lost both my parents in a train accident”. It was as if he had driven a bulldozer through the group. The lady stopped speaking, turned around and walked away. I had to counsel later with her to reintroduce her back into the group.

Now, the young man may well have told his story to the group at a later stage in the proceedings, perhaps over dinner the following day, or at another point, but to ride rough-shod over the lady’s story was insensitive to say the least.

Listening, and specifically without bringing in your own story or agenda, perhaps particularly in an emotional context, is a skill that few seem to have. Everyone wants to tell their own story, sometimes inappropriately or in an untimely fashion. Usually, these stories have to be bigger and better than those of the previous speaker. Consequently, people don’t feel understood, and leave the conversation with emotion unresolved.

Part of the problem goes back to our childhood, our upbringing. Parents deliberately, faithfully and authentically teach their children how to talk, read and write, but very few parents teach these same children how to listen effectively. Surely, the children are told to listen, but never really are told “how” to listen.

In emotional contexts, I have found that reflective listening (identifying with the content and emotion of what a person is communicating) goes a long way to demonstrate understanding and to identify with the emotion of the speaker. People don’t necessarily need answers to the issues that they are facing as they are usually capable of coming up with alternatives anyway. People, however, do need others to listen and understand – “I hear you” only finds meaningful impact when our listening is demonstrated with appropriate body language and when mind and heart are focused on what is being communicated.