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Listening is one of the most precious gifts you can give someone

By Ewan Aitken, Cyrenians CEO

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Bath-time, bedtime, tying up, who controls the TV remote, taking turns to clear the table after meals, announcing things that are required for school 1 minute before we are due to leave are all flashpoints in the Aitken household. They are only a few of a much longer list. We love each other very much but sometimes, often over the simplest of things – we just let rip!

It took me years to realise that every family has a list like ours. The details are different but having consistent flashpoints, which spark sometimes at least verbally violent disagreement, is a common aspect of many, if not, every household.  For a long time I presumed it was my failure to manage family life or that my children had somehow presumed that they had a butler or a bit of both maybe.  Whatever it was, I knew I wanted to change that, have a family life without verbal jousting and arguing. Not that it happened all the time. We could go weeks without biting each other’s heads off, then suddenly, from nowhere, the dogs abuse would kick in and we’d be arguing away, often with little grasp of what the trigger was in the first place.

It was a discussion with a friend with a new-born baby describing an argument in their house over whose turn it was to hang up the washing that tipped me off that we were perhaps not alone. Discrete inquiries inspired by a bit of storytelling myself prompted other friends to tell similar tales. What a relief! It was not just us. In fact, listening to others, our house seemed positively peaceful!

Then I heard a phrase that has really stuck with me – “listening, really listening, not just waiting to reply, is one of the most precious gifts you can give someone else”. I have no idea where I heard it but I have never forgotten it. It’s listening in a very different way to that I had been doing up to then. It’s listening not to win but to hear, to learn and to see the world differently. It doesn’t mean we are not heard, that the other person always “wins”. Instead what we say is shaped by what we hear, rather than simply what we wanted to say no matter what the other person has communicated.

Then there was learning to breathe. To stand still, wait, listen to my breath and then, and only then, say what I needed to say. I have been influenced greatly by a Bhuddist monk called Thich Nhat Hanh, founder of Plum village in France whom I met when he visited Scotland in 2005. He spoke of how silence is the best preparation for words. Listen first to your breathing and it will still your mind and your soul, so your words are not driven solely by how you feel.

Conflict is normal; listen and be still, breath first before you speak, and you will find a way through it. My family life is still punctuated with moments of verbal conflict and disagreement. Perfection is not one of our problems. But knowing we are not failures because sometimes we argue, and taking time to listen and to breath before entering the aftermath of disagreement means our list is now simply a description of real life, no more and no less, and that’s a very good place to be.

Ewan Aitken, Cyrenians CEO

Ewan Aitken is chief executive of Edinburgh Cyrenians. Before joining Cyrenians he spent 6 years as head of the Church of Scotland's Church and Society department. A former Convener of Education and Leader of Edinburgh City Council, CoSLA spokesperson on Education and founder of the Ripple Project, Ewan has 30 years’ experience working in the third sector.

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