The Collective

Are You Really Listening?

text written on black wall effect background

Are you really listening? The answer is very likely a big fat no. How often do you actually focus on what someone is saying. Instead, there’s the running ticker tape: the Ocado shop, when will Brexit go away, yesterday’s deadlines, the overwhelming in-box, the beep of your iPhone, what are the kids going to eat for dinner? And you are not alone. Research shows that only 10% of us listen effectively.

We might think we are listening, but more often than not we are chomping at the bit to jump in and share our experiences or offer advice – but are we listening to fully understand what it is that someone is trying to tell us, a factor which negates the efficacy of our day-to-day communication.

I am just as guilty. Silly because I know only too well as a journalist that the best type of interview comes when you really listen; and that’s the words along with the pauses (which incidentally are just as revealing as the words).

I get the best exchange when I’m not ticking off a checklist of questions that I’ve prepared ahead, but when I take part in a conversation which evolves organically. It’s when I receive the best insights, the sound bites no one else has written and not the rat-a-tat-patter of well-rehearsed answers to questions the interviewee has been asked a dozen of times. And, which frankly is so much more enjoyable.

Active listening (the ability to unpick the meaning of words and silence) is so integral to good communication and yet, it is so rarely championed – or even taught at school or later on in life. Think of the many many tomes which have been written on the art of speaking or public speaking since the time of Cicero, but when was the last time you read anything about learning to listen properly, something that can definitely be improved upon with a bit of effort. As a child, my Granny used to tell me, God gave you two ears and one mouth so you could listen twice as much as you speak.

The late American psychologist Edwin Shneidman said, “When you listen for the pain, hurt and fear in people, it is always there. And when people sense you doing that with no other motive than to alleviate all of those, they will lower their walls and reveal them to you.”

Listening promotes empathy along with being in the present. It takes some practice to not judge or let your mind wander off. The way we listen and engage with others mostly boils down to a mixture of the following: only listening to what someone is saying through the prism of our own perspective; at other times, we are assumptive listeners (the most obvious example of poor listening) whereby we assume we know what the other person will say. We are so caught up thinking about what the other person wants to say that we don’t hear what they are actually saying, either because we are too impatient or as a result from a past experience with them.

There’s also judgemental and defensive listening where we might criticise someone – and body language is also very much at play here – to the extent that the person withdraws. And finally, a sort of authoritative listening, the kind of listening where someone always has to be right. There’s a lot of ‘should-ing’ that happens in this kind of conversation typically, an approach which implies that the speaker does not have anything of value to bring to the table.

To really listen of course, it helps to shut out the noise in our heads and adopt lightness. This is something that I come back to time and time again and I’ve written about before, but have you noticed that when there is a light hand on the tiller, (controlled, calm and confident) that everything just runs more smoothly, everything just IS better. Adopting lightness in every aspect of my life I have come to realise – relationships, work, conversations, that dealing with problems makes me feel more joyful and curious, more outward looking. Not only does this clear the mind and enable you to be more in the moment, it allows you to be a good listener.

How can we be better listeners? A good listener knows that, somewhat paradoxically we also need to learn to be a skilled interrupter by which I don’t mean charging in with our own ideas or advice before you have listened to the end of a sentence, but asking questions which delve deeper, are open-ended and which encourage the speaker to carry on. By doing so, you are able to elicit so much more from the person speaking.

Another key trait of the good listener is not to follow every digression introduced by the speaker; to gently but ever so skillfully steer the speaker back to the point he was making. A good listener doesn’t moralise either, they are kind ,patient (and often curious) enough to listen without judgement, to reassure someone that whatever it is that they are saying is not strange, that the vulnerability of the speaker is to be encouraged and explored.

The good listener might also add a few, judiciously placed confessions to assure that whatever the speaker is saying falls in the realms of normal or acceptable behaviour. They confess not so much to unburden themselves as to help others accept their own nature, experiences and story. For ultimately they are really listening.

What I Wish I Had Learned At School

a man reading a book on big book next to green tree with cloud on light green background

Does success at school translate into success at life? I write as little people are (finally!) back to school and everyone else back to the full throttle of metro-boulot-dodo. I’m also trying to work out how many times in the past thirty years I have used a simultaneous equation? Yes, my point exactly. Instead, I’m wondering how useful would it have been to learn – and in no particular order – how to negotiate a pay-rise; how not to get gazumped; the truth about childbirth or the best way to navigate the work place which, let’s face it, is where most of us will be spending a very very long time.

The School of Life dictionary (genius if you haven’t come across it) makes the very sage observation that given how long we spend at school, it is bewildering and deeply counter-intuitive how often success at school does not automatically translate into success in life. The root of the problem, it concludes, is that school curricula are not reverse-engineered from fulfilled adult lives in the here and know. That is, schools don’t ask what skills and knowledge will actually serve us in adulthood and devote themselves to nurturing star pupils in those areas.

Instead, schools are typically fixated on several unhelpful ideas that include: you have to learn what is known already, rather than develop the capacity to solve problems to which no handy solution yet exists; that it is the intellect that needs to be trained, whereas it is the quality of our emotional intelligence that will make the biggest difference in our professional and personal relationships.

Schools, it explains, teach us to redeploy rather than originate ideas; to seek permission; to meet rather than change expectations. Schools teach us anything OTHER than the two skills that really determine the quality of adult life: knowing how to choose the right job, and knowing how to form satisfactory relationships.

It isn’t, it asserts, the case that all we need to do to succeed at school is to flunk school. It’s a far more complex juggling act than that: “A good life requires us to do two very tricky things: be an extremely good student for twenty years, and simultaneously never really to believe in the long term validity or seriousness of what we’re being asked to study. We need to be outwardly entirely obediently while inwardly intelligent and committedly rebellious.”

What do I wish I’d learned? That A-levels on Emotional Intelligence had been a compulsory part of my education. I could have saved myself a lot of time, angst and grief: the endless procrastination or worrying what someone else thinks or why someone hadn’t replied to an email. Or else a helpful prod that we are all very very different indeed.

It’s the single most useful thing that will help you to thrive in life and the work place and so much more important than any career service at school or university will ever impress on you. Certainly it will help you manipulate a meeting or an encounter to your best advantage if you are able to ‘read’ the emotions of others around you.

What else could a double lesson of General studies have included? The ability to fail well is up there. This is definitely something that wasn’t taught at school although thankfully a growth mind-set is high on the agenda at a lot of schools today. Mistakes are our greatest teacher so embrace them when they happen. Failing encourages us to be emotionally tough and resilient and learn to cope with the hurdles that get thrown our way.

Which leads me neatly onto my next point of stepping out of your comfort zone. Try it. You have no idea how empowering or alive you will feel until you do. Useful to know too is that not many things are ever truly that bad. The things you worry about the most are never the things that actually happen. And if something does go wrong, frame it with this thought: in five years, will this really matter? Worry you will soon see turns out to be our biggest time waster.

Adopting lightness, in every aspect of my life – relationships, conversations, dealing with problems and work – has changed my perspective enormously. When you feel lighter and move with lightness, everything just works out better. Everything just IS better.

No one tells you at school when they say that you can be a rocket scientist or anything a boy can do that one day, you will be rooting around the recycling bins at 1 am in the morning for an egg carton for the Year 4 project. While breastfeeding a baby. On about three hours sleep. Even with the most committed, 50:50 split partner, juggling work and small children is tough.

What have I learned? Don’t be afraid to say “no”. Often this means listening to your gut. An entirely good thing (and very reliable tool in your decision making process). Your “no” makes your “yes” more powerful. There’s much to admire in someone who knows their limits, who can manage their time wisely and is realistic with the expectations placed on them. People will respect you, not resent you. Learn to work smarter not harder. Oh, and cut yourself some slack.

On this very topic, you need to learn to put yourself first. Far from being selfish, when you put yourself first, you are taking responsibility for yourself, which has always struck me as quite a sensible thing to do. When you put yourself first, EVERYTHING BENEFITS.

Learn to forgive. Know that most hurt is unintentional and a product of insecurity, self-doubt and worry. Being slow to anger and judgement or feeling less persecuted by the aggression and un-thinking of others. It will, I promise you make for a far happier life. Remember too that not everyone is like you.

Throughout our lives we can only hope to be good teachers as well as good students. To return to the School of life, we should never want to be liked just as we are: “Only a perfect being would be committed to their own status quo. For the rest of us, good learning and teaching are the only ways to ensure we have a chance of developing into slightly better versions of ourselves.”

Why You Should Channel ‘Young-Old’

decorative script writing of "forever young at heart" in white on black

One of the most inspiring features I’ve read recently was an interview with Ali McGraw in the Telegraph. Actually, if I’m really honest, what was really compelling was how brightly the very brilliant whites of her eyes shone. Here was the visibly lined face of an 80-year-old but by God did she look as if she was having fun.

This is how I want to be, I said to myself tearing it out to stick somewhere. I wrote a year ago about hoping to find the grace to embrace ageing with acceptance and dollops of humour. The big 5-0 is no longer a gazillion miles off. It’s an age when many ‘getting old’ statistics begin and yet for a good many of us, who are more aware of exercise and eating well, we might –who knows- only be half-way through our lives. I know everyone feels 27 on the inside but many of us feel younger on the outside too.

It’s certainly how the Dutch man, 69-year-old Emile Ratelband felt. In 2018, Ratelband told a court in Arnhem in the Netherlands that he did not feel ‘comfortable’ with his official chronological age, which did not reflect his emotional state – and was preventing him from finding work, or love online. Doctors had told him that his body was that of a 45-year-old and he wanted to change his date of birth accordingly. Ratelband compared his quest to be identified as younger with that of people who wish to be identified as transgender – implying that age should be fluid.

It’s an anecdote that the journalist, former head of the Downing Street policy unit who sits in the House of Lords, Camilla Cavendish recounts in the opening chapter of her (must-read book), Extra Time which she wrote to challenge our notions of ageing. Its title, Extra Time will of course be familiar to football fans, a point in a match when there is “everything still to play for”. It is also a period when many ‘elderly’ are just getting their second wind.

In 2017, Cavendish reported that entrepreneurs are more likely to employ people over 50 in UK start ups than the under 50s. In the US, 55-65 year olds are 65 per cent more likely to start a business than 20-34 year olds. “It’s not old age that gets longer, it’s middle age, “Cavendish insists…”we need to stop lumping everyone from 60 to 100 together and accept it’s normal to be vibrant and capable in your 70s.”

There is, as Professor Marting Green, CEO of Care England says in her book, “ a casualness of ageism, people say things they would never say if the word “old” was replaced by gay or black.” Language clearly matters.

Her book is also a thoughtful exploration of what different countries are doing to build a world of extra time. She meets many “rebels against fate” who are refusing to dress demurely, stop work or be carted off to care homes. By 2020, for the first time in history, there will be more people on the planet who are over 65 than who are under 5: that’s more grandparents than grandchildren.

Japan, she reports is the one of the few countries that has begun to effectively address the ageing population. But even more than that, it has identified that some of us are what the Japanese call “Young-old at 80” while others are “old-old at 65”. But what sort of mindset does it take to be a young old?

For anyone interested in outlier communities in the world, where people live far longer than average they may want to watch Dan Buettner’s TED talk on how to live to 100 plus. Buettner is an explorer, author and founder of the company, Blue Zones which specialises in understanding longevity and what makes for a meaningful life. Okinawa at the Southern end of Japan is one of the world’s blue zones which has the highest rates of centenarians. Central to Okinawans’s way of living is Ikigai, a Japanese word which translates as “reason for being”. It is quite literally your purpose, the reason you get out of bed every morning, the thing that puts a spring in your step. It is a fusion of the practical and spiritual which connects work, family, duty and passion.

When half of all 75-year-olds acknowledge that TV is their main form of company in Britain, something has gone disastrously wrong says Cavendish. So how to put this right?

Finding this sense of purpose will naturally differ for all of us: learning new skills, taking up a language or an instrument, a foot out of our comfort zone, caring for grandchildren or elderly parents, giving back to our communities or blossoming in a new career.

Many retired people have a sense of falling off a cliff floundering to find themselves, even if they initially welcomed more leisure time. People who have climbed every ladder in life presented, bravely meeting challenges along the way, suddenly find themselves with no more rungs to climb and no compass. Their biggest fear is not being relevant.

What else helps you be more young-old? Regular exercise, enough sleep and (ideally) a plant based diet are recognised as a boon for cognitive health but so too is nurturing social contacts – our community is key – and challenging your brain.

One of the most interesting sets ups that Cavendish comes across is the age diverse, cross-class village in the Netherlands where older people are not socially isolated. At the Humanitas Deventer retirement home, six students live with 160 elderly people aged between 79 and 100. They receive rent free accommodation in return for spending 30 hours a month with the residents: helping with chores, giving computer lessons or just making conversation.

The elderly residents come to life hearing about the students’ exams and relationships; they especially love dissecting the events the morning after. This is a place where real relationships are forged, not a token activity such as when school children come to visit to sing a song, but where deeper friendships which develop over time. The more time that Cavendish spends here, the more she reflects that if you aren’t treated as old- as somehow apart from everyone else – you probably won’t feel as old.

It’s a choice to be young-old. A choice which hopefully comes with many pleasing consequences. Ali McGraw chose that path with a later life filled with Pilates, yoga, rescue animals and community work. What else do we need to remember? That age does not define us but it is our very personal set of passions, dislikes, interests and network of complex human relationships which do.

The Importance Of Community

words from a puzzle game spelling words have power on yellow background

There are not enough superlatives to describe the powerhouse that is Lydia Fenet: by day, global director of strategic partnerships at Christie’s New York and a leading benefit auctioneer who has raised over half a billion dollars for over 400 non-profits around the world by night. She is also a mother to three children and has done a great service to womankind by writing her first book, the Most Powerful Woman in the Room is You. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lydia recently about her book for the inaugural in-conversation of Jimmy Choo’s “in my Choos”, which is at once a manual filled with time hacks as it is an exploration of deeper life lessons.

There are many subjects that Lydia tackles which made me sit up and take note. Subjects which will encourage you to lead richer lives – and I mean that both in a literal and metaphorical sense- including how to fight for what you deserve (specifically, being financially responsible and how best to negotiate a salary increase) and why we all need to embrace failure.

But there was one topic that really struck a chord. It was the reminder that there is nothing as powerful as a community. Lydia explained how she harnessed her community, namely the audience at one of her paddle raises in order to smash her target. How by harnessing our community, we can all scale unimaginable heights we could never hope to reach on our own.

We all know it takes a village. Instagram loves to remind us of that. But have you really thought about how important your community is? We no longer lean on the communal benefits of the past – traditional ties to family and birthplace which provide natural, lifelong connections. In 2019 our communities have, to a certain extent replaced our families.

What’s the key to happiness? It’s a question that we have been asking (and trying to answer) for thousands of years. Studies at Harvard and the London School of Economics have consistently identified that happiness is achieved through rich social bonds. It’s where I borrow Gill’s podium and bang on about life being about people and not stuff.

When people enjoy deep, meaningful relationships with other people in their community, it enhances their overall happiness, and allows them to collaborate with and support others to achieve more than any one person could ever achieve alone.

Shared experiences are a very powerful way to build relationships between very different people. And hurdling the most challenging or difficult experiences together is an incredibly powerful thing.

A community bolsters us, it is within our community that we find our strength. That strength of community runs deep, like the bridge between the world and ourselves. Without a community, it is hard –impossible even – to share our enthusiasm, our passion, our experiences, our wisdom. Our community is the ultra support system that carries us through challenging times or when we’re losing steam and motivation. It means we don’t ever have to stand alone.

It can be lonely at the top, in work as well as in life. While most entrepreneurs dream of a market all to themselves, research (and my gut) suggests that you are better off in company.

There are many benefits that competition brings to similar businesses within an industry, not least the most obvious one, which is that it keeps you on your toes, always encouraging you to move forward and to not stand still. “If nobody is competing in your space, there’s a good chance that your market is too small. Any good idea has 10,000 people working at it, “says the angel investor, Ben Yokowwitz. It’s another way of legitimising what you are doing.

It takes some confidence (yet is good business practice) to thrive in a market place filled with successful others. Confidence is also required to be obsessively focused on your competitor whilst apparently ignoring them. That is, identifying your rivals, understanding their success, their shortcomings while not reacting to every move they make. The ideal community is made of like-minded people who share the same goals.

As Lydia explains, a truly powerful woman doesn’t thrive by putting other people down; she does it by lifting people up, and benefits from that as much as driving herself to live to her fullest potential.

She is someone who leads by example and shows those around her that there is strength in numbers, in those who choose to lift others up to lead with her. It is a woman who sets a goal, articulates that goal and follows through, who understands that leadership is about the human connection, about inspiring and connecting not only by herself but encouraging other people to do it well.

There will always be some who can’t handle your success, but frankly you don’t need them to believe in you. Decide that your plane is going to be filled with other people you have motivated and inspired along the way – the community of people you have surrounded yourself with and spent time building and cultivating.  In Lydia’s books, Dee Poku, founder and CEO of Women Inspiration and Enterprise implores us to remember that when one woman rises, we all do.

And so, I leave you with Lydia’s very sage words: “The most powerful woman in the room doesn’t do it alone; she doesn’t want to do it alone. She wants everyone to succeed as much as she wants to succeed. Strength in numbers. Power in numbers. But most importantly, power in leadership.

The Art Of Writing Letters

Scriptive text - The best thing in my life is your love

One reason to love a handwritten letter? My friend, Gina puts it best when she ways: “I’m very over the top about letters because the ones I have are the paper soldiers alongside me when I don’t have much fight.”

Stop and savour that thought for a moment because I bet there aren’t many emails which make you feel like that. Four centuries ago, John Donne wrote “more than kisses, letters mingle souls”. Donne was right. Words carefully chosen, written on paper are better than any present – probably because they are the ultimate present. A present which another friend decided to give to her entire family one Christmas when she was feeling hard up.  And what she realised ever since has been her most gushed over gift.

There is something very special about a handwritten note and not only because its rarity heightens its appeal. They are considered yes, tangible certainly, but a letter says many more things. A letter says you matter to me, I thought of you, I want to share textures, colours, dreams and thoughts. Practically, it also says I took the time to queue up to buy a stamp, bothered to look for a nice card or appropriate note paper and remembered to actually stick it in the post box.

Letters capture a moment in time, a mood, a reflection – however fleeting- which can be treasured, recorded and in time, will be a way of re-living a connection. They give a sense of where…I am sitting in the garden, under the dappled shade of a tree; I can hear the children bath upstairs and will have to go to them soon.  They also give support in difficult times, guidance for the future or are otherwise an opportunity to give someone something that they can turn to when in need of a squeeze.. to know that you  are loved. A good letter is the next best thing to showing up at someone’s door.

Except how very few personal handwritten letters we receive today; how very sad. In our age of busyness we might not even recognise the writing of people or colleagues we know well, in a way that we would have taken for granted 15 years ago.

While my own mother has been able to impart first hand her natty Chinese pearls of wisdom, meted out at regular intervals, I never did know my father.He died in a car crash when I was 15 months and my sister was a newborn, barely 36 hours old. He had just returned from visiting them both in hospital. It was a cruel twist of fate for a couple who had spent many years trying to conceive and who had finally been blessed with two children. The enormity of his death didn’t really register until I had my own babies but I’ve often wondered what he thought: what would he have told me to believe in, forget about, or learn from. What were his hopes and dreams? His predictions for the future, his disappointments. And I suppose I will always wonder.

A friend has lists of topics from her father when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and started to write to her about his life.  Some are unfinished but she takes great pleasure in the ones he did fill in returning to them time after time at various stages of her life and always finding something new.  Although she laughs that she is more interested in his choice of American literature than his sex life in his twenties. My unscientific vox pop amongst friends suggests that letters and photos are what we would grab first in the event of a fire. Not the limited Chanel 2.55 or  the many many shoes we own or even books. Possibly because as I keep reminding my children, life is about people, not stuff. Letters travel through centuries like nothing else.

Four years ago for VH, I wrote the letter to my children that I would have liked to receive. So now they are in no doubt as to what their Chinese fish wife mother thinks about many, many things. I had initially sought out Smythson note books in which to write– both of which are still languishing in my bedside drawer. As it turns out, all I needed was a bit of paper. Caroline Kent’s exquisite stationery at Scribble & Daub is always an enormously galvanising factor in getting me to put pen to paper, less spenny is papier.com but some will argue that the ‘polish’ -beautiful stationery or neat handwriting – are both missing the point.

I love too, as Catherine Field in the New York Times puts it that “a good handwritten letter is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do. You savour their arrival and later take care to place them in a box for safe keeping. “

For you can never take a letter back or simply delete it.  The romantic in me likes that a letter arrives from the past and that there is a waiting, that sense of anticipation is also  built into the mechanics. You wait for a letter to arrive. You wait for a reply. In the time it takes for the letter to reach its destination, anything might have happened…lives changed, lives lost, loves discovered.

A letter does more than inspire the reader who reads, it inspires the writer who writes it. Words somehow look better when you write them, but equally the act of writing them enables you to choose better words. Even an ordinary handwritten note is better than the best email, and a really good handwritten note on the right occasion is like a work of art.