The power of deep listening: a personal story

I am a brown-skinned man and I have spent most of my working life in the ‘civilized world’ world as an ethnic minority. Listening to other people’s perspectives, paying attention to their words and gestures, acknowledging their presence and needs, and being curious about what others have to say was not my usual reaction perhaps because of my childhood experiences. In fact, for most part of my early life I was a poor listener, and, in most social interactions, I had a strong urge to prove myself right. This is the story of how deep listening came to me accidentally and how it transformed my life.

Let’s begin with some bumps in my early career. At 29, I retired from sea and travelled from India to United Kingdom in search for better education. I took up a master’s degree in maritime economics at Cardiff University, scored a distinction but when I look back it was more like an extension of what I already knew from my sea career. And it was meant as a boost to my employability prospects.

I started applying for jobs and one afternoon I accidentally ran into the school of social science at the University. I saw a pamphlet on the wall that read – “funding available for anyone interested in PhD in social sciences”. It sounded cool so I applied for the program. I’m not sure how but I was offered the opportunity and thus began my journey into social sciences.

In the first few months I was introduced to political economy, research methods, and ethics. I also read philosophers including Marx, Hegel, Kant, Habermas and Foucault. Before I realized it was the end of the first semester. We were asked to submit six assignments for the course work. It was not just hard work; I was totally lost. I read more than a hundred books and articles, picked some random text from different sources, and submitted all the assignments in time. One of my tutors called me to his office, and he tore my ego apart. It was the most uncomfortable moment of my life to hear – “what have you produced? Sections of this assignment appear like you have literally plagiarized my work.” And he was right, I could not write anything original. He advised me to read less and reflect more. I had no idea what reflection meant.

The magic happened when I started fieldwork and data analysis. During the analysis of the data, I came up with two expressions – ‘work simplification’ and ‘work reduction’ as a result of implementing new technologies at sea. My professor asked me why I saw those two themes so differently. I explained one would mean technology simplifies the need for cognitive skills and the other would simply take the human out of the system. After giving it a pause he asked me “why does that matter?” I responded by saying one would mean we could do with semi-skilled workers while the other would require no manual labour once the work is automated. At this point, I even had the courage to throw back a question at Phil, “in the case of the former wouldn’t that mean we would still need people but now we can reduce the onus on training, right?” He listened to me, he made eye contact but did not utter a word.

That was very uncomfortable. I was looking for an acknowledgment but there was none. 10 long seconds were gone, no word from him and my brain was starting to fire more questions. “But what happens when you simplify the work at one end, wouldn’t that increase complexity elsewhere?” Not a word again from Phil but our eyes remained locked, and I could see him becoming more interested. In the next few seconds, I jumped out of my chair and said – “hey that’s Marxism! The separation between conception and execution of work.” I was thrilled with joy! I understood something that I had struggled with for nearly 7 months. He looked at me and we both laughed. I had never felt this way before. I was conditioned as an obedient son, discouraged to ask too many questions, trained as a rule following officer, and expected to come up with solutions as a seafarer. But this was different. I was present in the moment, thinking about the problem and asking questions. Phil had created a space for uninterrupted listening, and he gave me undivided attention. There was something powerful in this experience. By listening to me, Phil helped me become a better listener and I started to experience a perceptible link between listening and learning. Both are deeply uncomfortable but fruitful lifelong possessions. Social sciences and Professor Phil Brown changed my life from this point onwards. I became a listener.

Practicing deep listening

I finished my PhD and first took up a job at the Nottingham University and eventually as a safety inspector in the North Sea area where I worked in a regulatory capacity for nearly seven years. It was here that I started to realize the power of deep listening. Listening to others allowed me to appreciate the limitations of binary thinking. I started noticing the space between compliance and non-compliance, black and white, raw and cooked, sacred and profane. Where others saw technical malfunctions, I sensed relational problems, ego clashes, and misunderstandings. A fire detector not working was not a technical failure, it was an engineer’s struggle to get spare parts delivered on time. In many organisations I have visited, more than half of the non-conformances reported are categorized as technical failures when these are mostly failures of listening and understanding the problem. “This is the fourth time we have the same breakdown and I have submitted four reports, but nothing has been done” a chief engineer once said. The message was clear. Reporting is one way communication, and it works only when someone on the other side cares to listen.

I became less focused on reporting issues on the paper and more on listening and understanding. Often, I would come back from the ship visits and have nothing to report – no non-compliances, defects or even suggestions for improvement. Initially my colleagues would ask, “what happened, did you not find anything to report from that ship visit. Don’t tell me everything was so perfect, was it?” to which my usual response was ‘I did, I had some good discussions and it all made sense so frankly it makes no sense to put it on paper.’ I could sense discomfort at the start. But on the practical side, I found that asking open questions and listening to the concerns of people often led to meaningful dialogue and effective use of everyone’s time. As an inspector I had the authority, but solutions often came from people doing the work. Listening brought me so much closer to people, even those who I met for the first time.

The hole in the boat

By now deep listening was fully embedded in my practice. A ship came to United Kingdom from the tropical waters in Asia and she was arrested at once when she arrived in Aberdeen. There were some serious issues with machinery maintenance and housekeeping. The fire door to the engine control room was removed; some other fire doors in the accommodation were kept tied open; a bulkhead (wall) between the ship’s hospital and the adjacent room was removed. The list of defects was extensive and there were more inspectors and insurers on the ship than the total crew onboard. What was most infuriating to many visitors onboard was that someone on the ship had drilled a hole at the bottom of the lifeboat. I arrived on the ship and the atmosphere was tense. I spoke to the Captain who felt very ashamed about the whole episode. I assured him I was not there to find out the culprit and then I worked my way out to identify the crew members amongst those several visitors. Finally, I sat down with the officer in-charge who had drilled the hole to hear his side of the story.

We didn’t talk about the hole in the lifeboat. Instead, I asked him about his time onboard so far, his aspirations to progress through the ranks, his family back home and if he was able to speak to them on a regular basis. We discovered many common grounds, he told me how much he was missing his young daughter and we both shared personal stories about seafaring. We cracked jokes, laughed and then all of a sudden he said, “do you know why I drilled that hole because I am sure that is what you are up to?” Of course, I wanted to know more but Phil had taught me to be quiet, interested, and present in the moment. The officer explained that the ship was trading in tropical waters in Asia and experiencing heavy rain almost every day. The drain pump on the boat had broken down and a new pump was on order for the last 10 months. With a non-operating drain pump, water would often get trapped in the boat. At the end of his watch, he needed to go down and scoop the water out of the boat. As a temporary measure, he had fabricated a plug and kept it in place, but this improvisation was never approved by the technical team.

“Silly and stupid,” every visitor on the ship commented on the day. But why did it make sense to him? No one really asked this question. He said he had two choices, either follow the rules and keep the boat in good order, meaning bailing the water out of the boat with a scoop at the end of every watch. But that would mean spending at least one hour before and after every watch in the boat. The alternative was to drill a hole in the boat so that he could get in bed in time and avoid non-compliance with work and rest hours. Between the two rules, he chose the one that suited his personal situation.

Listening in this experience taught me to challenge the myth of ‘commercial pressure’. We tend to think that every organizational problem is the result of cost cutting. Yet, the cost of a new drain pump was only $90.00. It turned out that the purchase order had landed in the wrong department and despite urgent reminders, the request from the ship never attracted the desired attention ashore. The management clearly did not view the problem with the same urgency.

Today, when I ask workers why they don’t raise their concerns upwards to the leaders, a typical response is – ‘what’s the use, no one really listens.’ Isn’t that fascinating? We run many intensive mental health and employee wellbeing programs, but why do we not see the importance of deep listening in everyday work.

The paradox of listening

My first offshore trip was due soon and I had to appear for my medical tests. I passed the medical test, but I narrowly qualified the hearing test. The test showed that my hearing capacity was on decline. Through this test I became aware that if when someone spoke softly, I could miss out a few words. To an outsider it would appear I was listening with intent but deep inside I was struggling.

Adding to my hearing problem was my very unusual social identity – an Asian male with a PhD in social sciences working as a technical inspector in a high-hazard industry. Consistently being marginalized during discussions with clients and colleagues, not least because I look different but also because my views were shaped different, taught me humility. In my early days as an inspector, I was protective, even combative during discussions with colleagues and clients. When I had radically different ideas, I could see people avoiding me during conversations as if I didn’t exist. (That still happens but to a lesser extent.) But seeing me interested in what others had to say started to build bridges during difficult conversations. Of course, I never made my hearing difficulty known to anyone and every time I asked someone to repeat what they said, I was perceived as being curious. I would sit for hours listening to people with full attention without uttering a word. It is a great paradox in my life that a ‘hearing problem’ became a source of deep listening.

I remember once being invited to a meeting at the headquarters of a big oil company. The business leaders, three white men, walked into the room and after a light introduction they were keen to understand what I had on offer to improve their safety culture. I thought they would give me a chance to speak but I stood there listening to them and in an hour long meeting they talked for about 48 minutes. In the end, I summarized the conversation and won a contract. It was a strange feeling. They called me so they obviously wanted to hear my views, but I didn’t speak much, and it went well. What explains this? Deep listening. I was listening to them and they felt genuinely being heard because I summarized the conversation well.

One after another experience taught me the power of deep listening. Over the years, I have built several lifelong relations, won hearts (and occasionally a few projects) and came out of difficult conversations more empathetic and better informed through deep listening. I cannot think of a better way to connect with other human beings. But simple as it sounds and even after years of practice and reading, there are days when I am defeated, and I want to go back to my previous life. I want to talk and it’s so easy to talk, even ‘talk at’ especially when I’m seen as an expert but again, as the great Socrates reminds us true expertise lies in knowing what we do not know. Should I continue to listen, maybe, but it’s hard.

I now have a podcast channel, ‘embracing differences’ and I invite expert guest speakers from different fields. I pay careful attention to perspectives that don’t match with mine. In those diverse perspectives, I find the power to understand and connect with others. After all, we are one human race. I am so pleased that I started this endeavour. It has not only made me a better listener, I am also sharing the message and hopefully helping others unlock the link between listening and learning. Before I end, I have one last last confession to make. Throughout this article, I claim that I have improved my listening skills, but my wife does not see much improvement. In my next article, I will discuss some tools and techniques that have helped me become a better listener. For now, I will leave you with these thoughts.

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