Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Why Meetings Go Wrong

In a small country town in Victoria, Australia, a local rang up an Australian couple with the idea of nominating their 15-year-old daughter for the community achievement award. The parents were honored and replied, “That’s really nice… But there’s one glaring problem, she hasn’t actually achieved anything.”

And they were right. The teenager was absolutely normal.

She fought with her siblings. She went to school. And she watched bad sitcoms.

The only exceptional thing about her was that she had brittle bone disease and sat in a wheelchair.

Stella Young, as was her name, didn’t achieve anything worth mentioning until she finished high school and began her career as a comedian, writer and activist.

As a comic, she was crowned best newcomer at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Her writings had a knack of spreading and sparking comments. And she was an internet celebrity, her TED talk on how the disabled are like inspirational porn for the abled has almost 4 million views.

For our discounting society, Stella’s appearance was misleading: she was far more than a living reminder that life could be worse.

And she spent most of her life trying to convince us that disabled people are not simply objects for the able-bodied to put their worries into perspective, but people who can achieve success as well as the best of us.

Which is a tough pitch when everybody she meets puts on a patronising smile, bends down to meet her eyes and shouts (as if bone disease also made her deaf), “You’re so brave!”

One ABC radio host also made the mistake of calling her brave and got an earful.

“I’d mount the desk, get over there and smack you,” Stella said. “It speaks to this kind of assumption that people with disabilities are brave because our lives are horrible and that’s not true at all.”

The reason people like Stella Young are constantly underrated, is because we rarely take the chance to reach out and listen.

And even when we do put in the effort of connecting with another human being, like during a meeting, we don’t listen to understand, but to reply and hijack the conversation.

Depending on the dialogue, we might be listening to confirm our biases, to solve their problem, to smash their argument, or to make it about ourselves.

No wonder people don’t feel listened to: most of us just want to be heard and acknowledged. Being helped or right comes later.

So how can you become a better listener?

Firstly, by suspending your judgement. Even if you’re an expert on the subject, pretend you know nothing. You might be surprised and learn something.

Secondly, wait to respond until you’ve fully understood what’s been said. If you aren’t sure, summarise or ask questions. Good listeners help speakers express their ideas and feelings.

Thirdly, if you’re positive the talker’s opinion is wrong, ask them what could disprove their truth. If the speaker is willing to blow up their idea and adopt another, help them do it. If not, walk away.

And lastly, pick your battles. We don’t all have to share the same opinions and beliefs. Irrelevant disagreements shouldn’t get in the way of teamwork.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach