Taking The Time To Listen

Thursday 20 September, 2012

I have worked for a number of bosses: the workaholic who only ever looked up from his paperwork to find out why his coffee cup and ashtray were not where they should be; the too-soft middle manager promoted beyond his ambitions by virtue of years of service; and the arrogant one lacking any self-awareness, who could never be as good or as respected as he imagined himself to be. There were other more inspirational leaders too. Two in particular spring to mind. Partly because I worked for them longer than any of the others, but mostly because they had so many qualities in common.

They were men I worked under at different times in my life, but they were similar in so many ways. They were both generous and fair but, equally, they could be unforgiving and ruthless. They were gentle, imposing, decisive, strong, supportive, resolute, grounded and funny. They were more than willing to bear responsibility and eminently able to keep their heads in a crisis. They seemed to know instinctively what was the right thing to do. And, interestingly, even if their decisions turned out not to be the best ones, they remained unperturbed.

But there was one particular element of their behaviour which I observed because I shared an office with each of them and which, as a consequence, I witnessed time and time again: they took the time to listen to people. Not everyone. Idiots and time wasters were filtered most effectively, often without the individuals even realising. With everyone else, however, no matter how long it took and regardless of their agenda or itinerary, they would take the time. (It was more easily facilitated if they could smoke whilst listening – they were both prone to smoking multiple cigarettes, one after the other).

If other priorities had to take precedence, then they at least left the other person feeling they would be heard at the next available opportunity. Thereafter they would give full consideration to what had been discussed, contemplating it for as long as was necessary, and return with a supportive proposal or an explanation as to why a particular action needed to be taken. Although they took the time for people, there were occasions when they were both otherwise occupied, reading or typing. Any observer would likely conclude they were not listening, were distracted or busy. They may indeed have been busy, but they were nonetheless fully present, fully with whomever was in the room.

Each time it happened I saw just how easily they seemed to lose track of time. I was reminded of this when I read through the recent journal entry, ‘Congruency, Conclusion & Celebration’, in which Karaj explained the difference between what he called linear time and Indian time. The ancient Greeks made a similar distinction, labelling them Chronos and Kairos time. The former relates to chronological time: belonging to the clock, rigid, quantitative. Whereas the latter refers to the time in between: special, indeterminate, qualitative. Kairos means the right or opportune moment, the supreme moment.

Looking at those two former bosses, it is clear to me that they both allowed that supreme moment to occur because they knew how important it is that others are granted the time to talk and be heard. And they allowed it to occupy as much space as necessary. With my proximity to them, I was as much a beneficiary as anyone else and it always felt exclusive and personal. In those moments, time lost all significance, and appointments and phone calls were put on hold because the most important undertaking in the world was the person in front of them. At least that is how it felt, and that is all that counts.

 

[When I discussed this with Karaj in February 2014, he added that if he does not afford people the time they deserve because, for example, he takes a phone call instead, then he is disrespecting the individual, the phone caller, and himself.]


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