“And after all is said and done there's only us
We can make it right”

This beautiful, mellow piece, with a catchy opening rhythm, was a top-ten hit for Jon and Vangelis in 1979. Who, you may be asking? Vangelis Papathanassiou is an accomplished composer, perhaps best known for his soundtracks to the films Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire, for which he received an Oscar. 

The premiere of Chariots of Fire was held in 1981 at the old and rather wonderful Odeon Cinema in South Clerk Street in Edinburgh (now sadly a rather dilapidated and derelict space). I was privileged to attend in my capacity as Senior President of Edinburgh University Students Association. I recall speaking with the producer David (now Lord) Puttnam about whether this heralded a renaissance for the Brits in the film industry! And meeting Lynsey MacDonald, a young Olympic athlete who had captured the imagination of so many Scots. I also met two of the Magnusson sisters, of whom still regular BBC newsreader Sally had written a book about Eric Liddell, the athlete who featured so prominently in that memorable film.

What may be less well known is that Vangelis was once in a band called Aphrodite’s Child, with a fellow Greek, the well-known singer, Demis Roussos. Their last album 666 (based on the Book of Revelation) is viewed by some as a progressive rock masterpiece. A single from it, Break, is a classic. 

I first came across Vangelis in an album entitled Heaven and Hell on which he and Jon Anderson (the “Jon” in this pairing) closed side one with the beautiful So Long Ago, So Clear. I remember playing that track one evening to my parents on our then quite fashionable HMV stereo record player in an attempt to persuade them that not everything to which I listened was beyond the pale. The popular conductor of light classics, Mantovani, was a more familiar sound in that room and my anxiety to please remains with me to this day, a signal reminder of a generation gap that may have been at its widest between post-war parents, brought up in the relatively austere ‘30s and who lived through the war and the immediate post-war years, and their ‘50s and ‘60s children. Still, my parents heard the song out with good grace and seemed to appreciate it….

Jon Anderson is a hero for many who follow progressive music / prog-rock. His lyrics and vocals have illuminated albums for the super-group Yes for over 40 years, although illness and band disunity have seen him excluded in recent times. His spiritual and meditative lifestyle has informed his sometimes esoteric themes and lyrics. For me, Yes concerts in the early 2000s, with most of the original band members present, are among the best I have been to. Sadly, with the death of outstanding bassist Chris Squire in 2015, there will be no final reunion. 


Reflections

The word listen. Often, the real problem in any communication is listening, or lack of it. We think we have heard what was said but, for all sorts of reasons, we haven’t. Our inability to really listen leads us into error, assumption, judgement and misperception. 

To listen properly to another person is to offer a gift. Listening is a discipline. It takes self-control. It can be learned of course, like any other skill. But it is more than a skill. Real listening is an attitude of the mind, an expression of the heart. How much I care about, and am genuinely interested in, another person may be measured by my willingness to subordinate my own needs for a while and give precedence to those of another human being.

Can we listen at the margins? What would they have said if we hadn’t butted in, preferring our own voice, giving a rebuttal, observation or comment, rather than just absorbing? Are we really interested? Do we assume that we have we heard it all before? Do we think we know the answer already? Or are we just pre-occupied with finding a response, telling our story, or considering or asserting our position? All of these get in the way. Often, they represent our pre-judgment. They cause us to filter in only what we want to hear and filter out what we don’t. 

When we listen, we need to listen to each word. And then to what is not said. What was coming when her voice tailed off? What would a little nod from you encourage her to add? And, given that they say that 38% of a message is communicated by tone, modulation, audibility, pace, emphasis, what can we learn by listening to the way the words are conveyed? What does she really mean? It’s hard work. Controlling your own need to share an agenda, driven perhaps by shots of adrenalin, is demanding. But good listening is the key to effective communication and its absence is probably the source of many disputes, sadnesses, losses of self esteem and feelings of being undervalued or not respected. 

A moment of self-discipline may save a lifetime of misery – or at least a fragile workplace relationship or a major sub-contract. It may elicit a key piece of information for your inquiry or selection process, or to help you coach or mentor someone effectively. It may be just what is needed in a tough situation, before it escalates or explodes. The tougher the situation, of course, the more likely we are not to listen and the more likely we are to jump in, especially if our own emotional reactions are triggered. We’ll look at that later.

How should we listen? With full attention: we have two ears and one mouth, so use them in that proportion we are told! Eye contact, open posture, encouraging gestures, facially and with the hands, the occasional prompt (“go on”, “tell me more”) and summary (so, you’re saying…?”). Think about location and comfort, seating (side by side? facing the other?) and timing. All of these will promote easier conversation, induce a more relaxed atmosphere, and stimulate release of the hormone oxytocin which itself helps people to feel more relaxed. 

Listening is not only about saying nothing, important though that is. Asking questions of the short, open variety (“what happened then….?” “how did you feel….?” “what might you do….?”) shows that you are seeking to understand and want to learn more. Clarifying and checking can also help: “when you said…what did you mean?” “You mentioned….where precisely was that?” “There’s a lot in what you have said: going back to…., who was responsible..?”  We’ll continue this questioning theme in the next chapter.

We are told that Mother Teresa was a master listener: 

“To her, communication was often more about listening and observing than about speaking. By first listening with kind attention and a genuine desire to understand, instead of an urgent need to push her message, she could learn her listeners’ true language from words, tone of voice, gestures, breathing, cadence, body language, and eye contact.”
Mother Teresa, CEO (Bose and Faust) 

A senior mediator and thoughtful observer of what we do in conflict, Jane Gunn, once wrote this in her Christmas message:
“To be listened to is to be valued; acknowledged; recognised as an individual – to be truly listened to is to receive a precious gift, to be made to feel special. When we are listening, we are offering the other person the gift of understanding and acceptance (not agreement), of being taken seriously. At the end of the day, making others feel special is one of the keys to building relationships. In life and business, building relationships results in loyalty, and, in business, loyalty results in increased sales, reduced marketing and sales costs, and building a great brand for your business and for you.” 

These are wise words. Indeed, “If Everyone Was Listening” ( a song by Supertramp in 1974), how the world might be changed! As Supertramp sang: “There’d be a chance that we could save the show”…..


A Mediation Story

It had been a hard day with a series of one-to-one meetings in the mediation.  Given her senior position in a high-performing sector, it had been very tough for her to hear what others thought of her, both as a person and as a manager.  To her, it had seemed unfair and unbalanced. Tears were never far from the surface and yet never revealed to the others. Saving face and appearing to cope was essential. The impression she seemed to give to others was one of disdain, lack of respect, technical superiority and complete unwillingness to make an effort at a human level. 

I agreed with the employers that I would meet up with Rachel a couple of weeks later. To my surprise, and their great credit, they said they wanted to help her and Rachel had responded quickly and positively. My independence, with the confidentiality and the rapport we had built, gave us something of a foundation to build on. 

Over coffee, I listened, mostly in silence, for more than an hour. I heard a story of tragedy and loss, unhappiness and fear. Rachel has lost her mother at a young age and had effectively brought up her siblings in a poor part of town. She had “escaped” to further education and felt guilty about that. Going home had no joy as she and her family were effectively estranged by their economic and intellectual gulf. She still supported them financially though. She had been married at an earlier stage but that had collapsed as her partner succumbed to alcoholism and illness. She felt abandoned. She had few friends and most of them were superficial relationships. She was broken. 

Nobody at work knew any of this, not even her immediate boss with whom she had something of a working relationship. But the boss was always on the move and she never had time to talk about anything except margins, performance and targets. That suited them both for different reasons but it left Rachel isolated.

All of this came out with minimal prompting from me. A few thoughtful (I hoped) open questions and follow-ups, nodding, occasional reflection back, very occasionally a personal story from me (but actually, rather than being supportive, that simply moved the conversation briefly to my agenda and didn’t really work, as it rarely does – self-centred sympathy and other-focused empathy are so close and yet so different).

Rachel had great insight into her circumstances, as people often do but, at the same time, the misalignment between how she craved to be treated and how she treated others was so stark that I could not avoid commenting on it. She needed to work on this and on herself to be able to flourish.

Rachel has moved on. That meeting over coffee was a turning point, and led to all sorts of other meetings and opportunities. She now has a greater sense of control over her life and has learned what it takes to build authentic relationships at work. 

It all started with the recognition that she needed to tell her story and to be listened to. A few questions also helped….

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