Triggering the ‘active’ in Active Listening. What scuba-diving & the hospital emergency scene teach us?

You are scared and excited about being underwater for the first time! As the scuba-diving instructor speaks on how to go about the whole thing one last time, you hang onto each word for dear life. You grab tighter as the instructor moves on to ‘trouble-shooting’ instructions. You ask anything & everything that comes gushing onto to you. You repeat instructions, paraphrase the meaning as you understand it, ask whether you got it right. You are determined to get it right & you care a little less of what others make of you!

If you are going to do sky-diving or bungee jumping, you will likely be the same.

You may have never heard or known about ‘active listening’ in your whole life & you still end up practising it!

Active listening is listening in a way that reaffirms we are communicating; the speaker & listener both experience that they are making a real effort to understand each other.

We are exhorted to learn it & get trained on tips & techniques. We don’t know any of it, & yet we get by just fine in our vital briefings with all these instructors.

Consider first-response medics in the hospital emergency room. In the event of a natural disaster or a terrorist strike, they face the nerve-wracking task of immediately deciding a course of treatment for afflicted victims streaming onto the scene. Lives are at stake & there is no time to lose. These medics have to stay calm, talk to half-conscious, half-terrified victims & listen. Listen & decipher fast! Even as they first check on the unconscious ones compelling prior attention. Isn’t that challenging? To make sense of  injured,traumatized & disoriented souls, quickly judge what’s happening & act. And yet they can do it so well.

What is common to both situations is this- owning up to the responsibility of making the communication work. That’s it.

We value life & scramble to take responsibility, no matter which side we are on. And that makes us one hell of a listener!

Professional instructors don’t rely upon us to understand for the sake of our own life. They are aware that in panic-stricken moments, we might get disoriented. They will reaffirm what we know & reassure us in a spirit of mutual responsibility.In the case of the emergency medics, they shoulder the entire responsibility. The injured, hurting victims are in a bad shape. The medics communicate & understand in one moment, & detach, evaluate & act in the next. They reassure to the extent possible & move on.

What does it teach us?

We become responsible in a critical situation. We do everything in our power to communicate for high-stakes results.

Is it possible to integrate a decisive sense of responsibility into our substantive lives; to aspire higher for crucial conversations? Can we access a similar level of resourcefulness, not in response to a hair trigger alert, but as a nurturing consciousness? I believe we can. What works in high-stakes situations can be leveraged on purpose in less dramatic situations.

If we create enough space for people to realize what is at stake; if we help them value the outcome &  appreciate their role in achieving it, they are inspired to own up to their responsibility. When people own up to their responsibility, their awareness & sensitivity opens them up from within. They see the task at hand & acknowledge the emotions involved. And communicate effectively. It is precisely the lack of this context that makes tips & techniques fall flat on their face.

In organizations,this distills down to designing mutual responsibility for shared outcomes. An onerous task, but one that leads to enduring effectiveness.No argument against tips & techniques. They are useful. We are better served by making the learning of  tips & techniques incidental rather than causative.


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