Have you been whale watching?
This morning, I stood on a headland and looked out over Sydney Harbour to beyond the Heads. I was rewarded with another sighting of whales, my second in a week. I’m blessed with excellent long distance vision and today, I watched a pod spouting and leaping on their way north. They are such majestic creatures - no wonder we love watching them.
I reflected on how whale watching is good for building resilience. Firstly, you are present, calm, right in the moment. You are not thinking about your finances, your partner or a work problem. You’re completely focussed on scanning the water for that tell-tale spurt of whale breath, or huge splash from a breach on the horizon.
It is a form of mindfulness, sitting inside the R of Regeneration, one of my ‘7 Rs’ of Resilience.
Understanding more about whales’ behaviour can lead you to Relationships (another of the 'Rs') and one of the stories in my book Everyday Resilience – Creating Calm from Chaos. Here it is below:
Bubble Net Fishing
You’ve probably seen majestic humpback whales leaping out of the water with glee, throwing themselves sideways or diving deep, their Y shaped flukes being the last part you see as they disappear.
I was privileged to see large groups of humpbacks in Alaska. As part of our travels, my boyfriend Tony and I had caught the local ferry from Stewart in British Columbia up the Inside Passage to the island of Sitka and stayed with an older seadog of a man called Chuck. His house fronts the water. On the first morning, I saw him standing at his six foot long telescope looking out to sea past another small island. “I’m watching humpback whales spouting”, he told me. “Would you like to go out and have a look?” We didn’t need a second invitation and after breakfast packed sandwiches and drinks. We walked down past the huge wood pile to his World War 2 fortyfive-foot boat moored at his jetty.
Chuck told us that the whales migrated over from Hawaii to Alaska during the summer to fish and eat, then went back for winter to have their babies and play in the sun. We were lucky being there in September at the end of summer to see them before their migration south.
As we puttered towards a group, Chuck told us what to look for. We could see a group of about seven or eight whales moving slowly, backs showing, spurting as they breathed out. Then one at a time, they dived. “You can tell each individual, as their flukes are unique”, he told us. “Every single marking is different – some are white, some have white markings in various shapes and sizes and some look black.”
We waited for a circle of bubbles to appear on the surface. The whales swim in a shrinking circle, blowing bubbles beneath a school of fish. Excitedly, we watched as the surface broke with eight open gaping whale mouths gulping thousands of fish simultaneously. They fell to their sides and did four or five shallow movements before diving again. There were many groups in the bay and we scrutinized them, fascinated for hours.
“Whales get to know boat noises and decide who they like and who they don’t like”, Chuck continued. “They like this boat.” He had, over many years, taken out scientists from Hawaii who studied the whales’ movements.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I love how the whales work together to communicate as a team to bubble net fish. They have a common goal to feed themselves so communicate and cooperate effectively in order to achieve their objective.
To build and maintain resilience, you need to communicate effectively with others. One of the most important skills is listening. Really listening. Active listening.
Why is listening important?
When I’ve facilitated sessions in active listening, I am no longer surprised by how hard people find it. To stop thinking about what you want to say. To be able to paraphrase or repeat back what the other person has said. To not butt in with a story of your own, especially a better or worse one to show off or ‘one-up’ the other person. Sitting in silence for five to ten minutes, listening to another person can be agony for some people.
However, if you practice and learn the skill, you will not only learn something from another person, you will be giving them a great gift of being heard.
How many times, when you’ve had a problem, once you talk it out, the answer comes to you, or it doesn’t seem so bad? Now men, I know it can be really hard for you not to say anything. I know you want to solve my problems for me and show me how clever you are – but do try to resist.
Stephen Covey’s fifth habit of Highly Effective People, is ‘Seek First to Understand, then to Be Understood’.[i] As he says, “Communication is the most important skill in life.” And few people have had training in listening. Many people selectively listen, hearing only parts of the conversation. Other times, we are so busy thinking we know their story that we interrupt, missing the real gems.
I was in a seminar recently and spent nearly a whole day listening to a man who was very intelligent and good at working with large businesses to grow them, however I was struggling to see how his material was relevant to me. When I asked questions, he gave such answers that I almost felt stupid and simple-minded. When I reflected on this day, I realised that he had not understood his audience in order to give them maximum value.
In How to Win Friends and Influence People[ii], first published in 1953, Dale Carnegie’s fourth way to make people like you is to be a good listener and encourage others to talk about themselves. He gives a number of examples where business customers have been saved, and dinner parties have been successful, all because someone listened and asked interesting questions.
Sometimes we just need to be heard.
I love this poem.
When I ask you to listen to me
And you start giving advice
You have not done what I asked.
When I ask you to listen to me
And you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way,
You are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me
And you feel you have to do something to solve my problems,
You have failed me, strange as that may seem.
Listen! All I ask is that you listen.
Not talk or do – just hear me.
Advice is cheap: fifty cents will get you both Dorothy Dix and
Dr Spock in the same newspaper.
And I can DO for myself; I’m not helpless.
Maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless.
When you do something for me that I can and need to do
For myself, you contribute to my fear and weakness.
But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel,
No matter how irrational, then I quit trying to convince you
And can get about the business of understanding what’s behind
this irrational feeling.
And when that’s clear, the answers are obvious and I don’t need advice.
So, please listen and just hear me, and if you want to talk,
Wait a minute for your turn; and I’ll listen to you.
We all need to be heard.
At one stage, while we were watching the whales, one whale came straight towards the boat and dived right under us – right where I was standing. I felt she was checking me out and listening to what we were saying about them.
· Build relationships with friends, peers and colleagues
· Listen with your whole body, not just your ears. Listen to what is not being said, as well as the words
· Reflect back what you have heard, to make sure you understand
[i] P 236. Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989
[ii] Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People. London: Cedar, 1991