Listening II

By Marilyn Hay

How much do we miss in non-verbal communication just in passing? Do we
respond to what other  people are telling us about themselves
unconsciously, simply responding to their words? Or do we check what
they’re saying against the non-verbal cues they are unconsciously
projecting? I call these unconscious messages ‘heartsongs’.

wonder if we so often don’t pay attention to, or  address, heartsongs
because we feel we’d somehow be intruding in another’s privacy, or
that ‘it’s none of our business.’ Or perhaps we think we’re too busy to
get into something that doesn’t really pertain directly to us. But … 
we are all part of this great community of life, not separate and
apart,  isolated from one another, unless we choose to be. There is so
much more possibility of what our relationships could be with the
people around us, so much more joy in what we can become in one
another’s life. Simply truly listening to the spoken message can have
powerful outcomes for communication and relationships. However, I’ve
learned that listening and responding to the heartsongs can make life
richer, more amazing, more wonderful, more beautiful and magical than I
could have ever imagined it could be.  

I remember when I was 
appointed to my position as Regional Director General, I met with the
man who was acting until I was to arrive some weeks later. He briefed
me thoroughly and was entirely supportive and welcoming despite the
fact that organizational  reductions of executives meant that when I
arrived, he would be laid off. So he was taking early retirement. I
asked what he planned to do with his time, and he shrugged, looked
away, as he hadn’t yet decided. I asked how it was  that he was the one
who was being laid off, as there were other executives in the region,
peers of his that were temporarily his subordinates because of his
acting responsibilities. Again, he shrugged and looked away. Well, they
were younger, still had a great deal to offer and he figured it was
best if he volunteered to go. Uh huh. The words said he was glad to go,
that he was alright with the decision. The body language said something
else entirely.

I spent the next several days finding out more
about this man, and learned he was uniformly highly esteemed by the
headquarters people, other regions, his colleagues, his provincial
counterparts, the aboriginal stakeholders and so on. Somehow, that came
as no surprise. I called him and asked if he really wanted to retire.
He was surprised by the question and said  that someone had to leave. I
told him that wasn’t what I asked, and then more specifically enquired,
“Would you be willing to stay?” Again, he said he didn’t know how that
could be arranged. “Think about it,” I said. “Everyone  tells me that
you’re extraordinary, that you’re trusted beyond all others, that you
have incredible integrity and you do exceptional work. I need you in
the region, I think the department needs your continued contributions,
and I’d like you to stay.” There was a very long pause; it was pretty
clear that no one had ever told him straight out how valued he was, how

Well, the long and the short of it is, he finally
admitted when I arrived to take the reins that he really didn’t want to
retire. So, then I asked him what his terms were to stay. “Terms?” he
echoed, confused. “Well, you have a good severance package because this
is a layoff situation. I’d think you’d want some guarantees if you were
going to stay to help me as the  new executive head. I’ll do my best to
get you what you want.” The result was that I negotiated special
permission from the Deputy Minister to keep this man  on board because
he was too good to let go, especially as I was there on a learning
assignment and he was the one who truly knew the job. He stayed as the
Associate Director General. He and I ran the region together and, five
years later when I left for another position, he again acted until he
was  really ready to retire nearly a year later. We had a lot of
successes in those years, and I got a lot of credit as the regional
head, but I was always clear with everyone that I could not have done
it, that the region would not have been so strong, if not for him. If I
hadn’t listened to his ‘heartsong’, I would have missed so much, lost
so much, in what he taught me, his sincere support over the years, the
excellence of the work he did. And he’s since told  me how much he
appreciated the opportunity to stay, because he hadn’t really wanted to
To hear heartsongs and respond to them, one has to care
enough about other people as people, as fellow beings sharing life’s
journey, to listen. It certainly makes a difference in all our lives.
We’ll never know or experience the richness of the possibilities around
us until we do.