Do you really listen to what other people are saying? by guest blogger Judith Cross

When did you last stop thinking about: things that were bothering you; how busy you are; things you had forgotten to do and still needed to do; where you were going next; who was going to pick up the kids from school; what you were having for dinner; and really listen?

When did you last really pay attention to what someone was saying without thinking halfway through their sentence how you would be responding and letting your mind wander?

When did someone last really listen, and I mean really listen to what you were saying?

When did someone, anyone, last give you time and space to think things through; support you to develop your ideas; and allow silence

We live in a world where our lives are lived at such a fast pace, always on the go, always thinking ‘what next?’

We may think we listen to what people to say to us but this takes training, it takes time, and it is exhausting.  Focusing on another person and not thinking about ourselves really does tire you out.  People focusing on you and really paying attention, and working for your best interests, tires you out too.  Listening is an underrated skill but the outcome from doing it right can be extremely powerful.

Recently I went on a three day training course run by Action Learning Associates to develop my skills as a facilitator of action learning sets.

Action Learning is like having a peer network challenging your thought processes, allowing you to think differently about an issue, idea or something that has been on your mind.

It’s a small group of people who come together to share how they are feeling, leaving what’s going on at the door, turning phones off, paying attention and working with you to develop solutions and possible actions.

A group is made up of between four to eight people and can be people from one organisation; many organisations; working in the same field; or not.

The space is confidential and trusted. It is a safe space to explore. It is a new way of learning.

Every member of the group can put forward something they wish to explore. This doesn’t have to be work related. They then bid to present further on what they’ve put forward. The person presenting goes into a little bit more detail and the rest of the group can ask clarifying questions.

Then comes the hard bit.

Once clarifying questions have been asked, the group asks the presenter only open questions to support them to work through the issue, idea or topic they would like to discuss further.

It’s surprising how difficult it is not to try and offer advice, not to offer your own thoughts on the subject, not to reflect on what you would do, and not to lead someone towards your way of thinking.  It’s hard also to ask a really good open question that allows the presenter to see things from a different angle and to work things through.

It is hard, but is achievable and definitely worthwhile.

The facilitator of the group will log any actions. The presenter and the rest of the group don’t take any notes, meaning the focus stays with the presenter and there are no distractions.

Once the set comes to an end naturally or the agreed time for the presentation is up, the each person in the group has the chance to reflect back to the presenter what they thought of the presentation and what came out of it including how it made them feel.

It sounds simple and you’d think it easy.  In a way it is, but it takes time and being both the presenter and a set member to fully understand and see the benefits of action learning.

I have been part of an action learning set myself for over a year now and we meet every two months.  We have just started self facilitating now we are all clear on the process, committing time to getting together and putting aside everything else happening in our lives.

I have also been part of another set whilst training and have now had the opportunity to facilitate a new set.  This has been a great success and despite my nervousness in wanting to ‘sell’ action learning to a new group, after one day, and two presentations the process sold itself.

I can’t stress enough how much you can get out of this process and how much you can learn about yourself and others.

Even if you don’t feel action learning is for you, make an effort to start really listening and paying attention. It really does make a difference.


Judith Cross is a Clore Social Leadership Fellow (2013) and an independent consultant focusing on staff development, strategic planning and project management in third sector organisations. Judith is also in the early stages of setting up a social enterprise called ‘Grab a Grandparent’ having recently won Millennium Care award funding from UnLtd. Grab a Grandparent seeks to reduce social isolation and loneliness in older people by connecting them with individuals and families in a lasting and meaningful way. Judith’s blog was first published in her leadership blog judecross1980 in March 2014.



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