Listen to Keep

On the way back home from a show week in Orkney that was, post-pandemic, even more brilliant than ever, a colleague was telling me about a guy he’d worked with who’d been on a course to learn how to listen effectively and actively. He’d learned to make good eye contact, but not to the point where it becomes intimidating. He stopped speaking to people with his arms crossed, as it looks defensive. He learned to “listen” to body language as it often spoke louder than the linguistic type. And he learned that it’s always better to ask open questions than to impose what you think are your brilliant solutions. Because they probably aren’t very brilliant.

It made him better at his job, as he was now so much better at building rapport with his clients who felt truly valued by him and who loved being in his orbit. He went from being quite good for the company to truly indispensable.

And yet. Something wasn’t right.

When he’d first met his wife, they’d meet at home after work and he’d ask about her day and she’d tell lengthy anecdotes about new projects and bitch about some scandal or other in the office.

Latterly, however, although he still made a point of asking about her day, the anecdotes had shrunk to the point of being almost monosyllabic. He couldn’t understand how his once gregarious partner was suddenly so quiet.

And then one day the penny dropped.

Despite receiving great advice on how to listen, and despite being hugely successful as a result, he’d leave these skills behind as he departed the office. He’d failed to use them to build rapport with the person in the world who mattered more to him than any of his clients – his own wife.

Sure, he did want to know about her day but he employed only basic listening and jumped straight into an anecdote from his day as the slightest mention of something at work. He’d received various lessons on higher level listening without realising it was as relevant at home than anywhere else. Actually, more so.

He put it more pithily. “I was a total prick”, he said.

He made the decision to hold in his usual outbursts and to listen properly. He asked questions relevant to her previous answer and repeated key parts to subconsciously show her that he was listening. Suddenly, she opened up for hours about her day. It was like meeting and falling in love again for the first time.

The first time he did this, he asked her how she found the evening. “Different in a good way” she said. And he explained what he’d done. She realised that, subconsciously, she knew that she wasn’t being listened to. She’d built a wall. By becoming a good listener – and not a total prick – the wall came tumbling down.

So what am I driving at?

I was thinking about the story of this guy when watching the sheer horror of Truss and Sunak at the Perth Hustings earlier this week. The marriage analogy is often used by Tories when describing the union and Truss was at it again during the debate (“we aren’t just neighbours – we’re family”) and it occurred that if this is true then Westminster is simply a turbocharged version of the colleague who forgot to listen to his own wife. Truss and Sunak turn up in Scotland – for one night only – and tell us what is “allowed”. At no point whatsoever do they think to ask: “what is it that you want? How can we help?”

“How was your day, honey?”

I was struck by how both candidates, rather than reaching out and listening – like, really listening – to find out why Scotland is so desperate to leave – they tried to outdo each other on promising “more scrutiny” of the Scottish Government. Aye. That would be the same scrutiny that was completely absent when their leader was using his own power to organise a piss-up during a pandemic. You have to hand it to them though. Fair play. That level of chutzpah takes some serious cojones. Either that, or it’s a pathological level of cognitive dissonance and a total disturbing lack of self-awareness.

And that was demonstrated in one vignette where Rishi Sunak, in the same answer, said that Scotland was in a voluntary union of equals and that he would never “allow” – (my inverted commas, the language is revealing) a second vote on Scotland’s constitutional future. To which we must make three points.

Firstly, these two things – a consensual union and the blocking of a plebiscite – cannot possibly both be true at the same time.

Secondly, if the Supreme Court decides next month – and it might – that the calling of a referendum falls outwith the competence of Holyrood’s jurisdiction, then clearly this is union by coercion, not consent.

And, thirdly, what gars me greet is this:

It’s the sheer gall of the false premise that Truss, Sunak et al have any agency whatsoever over what Scotland decides to do. They don’t. With every single passing day, the genius of Scotland asking the Supreme Court to decide becomes clearer. In the end, the lawyers – not the politicians – determine whether Scotland can call this or not. If it says yes, game on. And if it says no? We have a de facto general election. And good luck to any unionist party trying to boycott that. We’re on our way.

The truth is that, like my colleague’s colleague, they aren’t even pretending to listen. In reality we barely register. There’s a deep lack of interest in the well-being of Scotland amongst the Conservative members of the rest of the UK. And, if the reaction of the party members in Perth is indicative, amongst the very small number of Tory members in Scotland, too.

This week’s hustings felt like a competition between two people with absolutely zero empathy with Scotland trying to outdo each other in their quest to appeal to a very small demographic which has given up on their small cabal of British Tories in Scotland and which now wants to back a muscular unionism to roll back a devolution settlement that, despite signing up to, they actually detest. Power devolved is power retained. And they can’t wait to call in the loan.

Not that they’ll ask permission, of course. Because they aren’t listening. They truly believe that they rule Scotland by right. That they know what’s best for us. Despite us not voting for them since 1955.

This week’s debate should convince us that the only way to ensure a vibrant Scottish democracy is to vote for it next year.

Thanks for listening.

Let’s get this done.

I’ll meet you further on up the road.

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4 replies »

  1. Thank you. I’m still working at listening longer to my own wife. Being compared with those two Tory politicians is enough to prompt me to work harder at that. And to also work harder at listening longer to the undecideds who will make the difference when we vote Yes next year.

  2. Your blog really hit home. I see myself only anxious to put my point of view forward instead of listening to my friends. I’ll have to do better. I agree that Truss and Sunak aren’t interested in what Scotland wants, they’re only interested in putting forth their diktats. Scotland hasn’t been interested in what they have had to say since 1955. Their tactics can only help independence.

  3. Nailed it once again, Alec! i, too, went on these, at times excruciating, sales boosting seminars back in the day…they taught me that body language is important, but a two-way dance. And to be a true “danseur”, one must be in tune with one’s partner.

    Westminster neither lead nor follow…they cajole, bribe, bluster, coerce…and ultimately bulldoze. The biggest myth built up over the centuries is that of “British Diplomacy”…other than the gunboat variety, it just doesn’t exist.

    It takes two to tango…and it’s time for Scotland to leave the floor.

  4. Always look forward to your articles – this one is no exception – superb as usual