Stepping back, and stepping back in.

In December 2014, I went on maternity leave. In October 2015, I relocated with my family to Eastern Europe and as a consequence left the job I had assumed I would return to in some capacity. I set up my business, let it sit idle for a few months as we settled into our new life, and in January 2016 I started taking tentative steps back into the world of work.

To be completely frank, it’s been daunting. A year feels like a very long time to have been out of the loop, especially when that year has been spent focusing on something so very different. I’d all but abandoned my previously vibrant Twitter account, I’d stopped following the blogs I used to read regularly, I’d missed conferences and events where such valuable conversations happen. I was also still carrying the weight of the loss of confidence I’d suffered (and written about) in the year before going on maternity leave, meaning that the step back in felt like an even greater leap.

Learning Technologies in January was both a perfect opportunity to start stepping back in and a nerve-wracking deep end to jump into. I quickly realised, though, that the intervening year had felt much longer to me than to everyone else. I was welcomed back into the fold of this very special L&D community and immediately started having interesting and promising conversations about new professional opportunities open to me as a freelancer. And with this came another realisation: I have the luxury of choice. While we live in Bulgaria, I am so fortunate that I can spend most of my time with my daughter; there is no pressure for me to do a certain amount of work each month. I know this situation won’t last forever, and I know how lucky I am to be in this situation at this point in my life. So I owe it to myself to make the most of it. To step back and really think about what I love doing, what I’m good at, where I see my career going in future and what I can do now to help make sure it gets there.

I’m discovering that life is just a series of learning curves. Every new phase brings its own challenges – but also its own opportunities. I think I’m getting better and better at taking advantage of those opportunities and using them to spur myself on to rise to the challenges.

Listening.

Something that struck me at Learning Live earlier this month was how frequently curiosity was mentioned, in terms of being a skill or characteristic that helps L&D professionals to stay relevant, to improve, to learn, to add value.

I agree; I think curiosity is a great thing and I believe that asking the right questions of the right people is an important skill. But I noticed that listening wasn’t mentioned with anywhere near the same frequency. Asking questions is all well and good, but the real value is in the quality of the listening to the answers. To what is being said, but also to what is not. To how things are being said, by whom, and in what situations and contexts.

As a natural observer and a quiet introvert, I often find myself watching conversations unfold rather than being one of the most active participants. I can lead and contribute when appropriate or necessary, but I am not one who believes that airtime equates to value. I also find that those occasions when I am primarily an observer, a listener, can be some of the most interesting and useful; if I am not distracted by considering my next point, or by looking for a pause to allow me to jump into the discussion, I can follow the unpredictable and evolving course of a conversation more attentively.

In terms of listening as an L&D skill in particular, I think the rewards are plentiful; it can help to:

  • Distinguish between what the business needs and what the people on the ground are looking for
  • Sort through the noise, the buzzwords, the hype and understand what’s really worth thinking about, investigating, trying out and investing in
  • Notice great ideas and glean gems of inspiration from unexpected places
  • Identify where the ‘white space’ is, in which nobody else is operating, and find opportunities that other people might miss

These are just a few benefits off the top of my head; no doubt there are many more. I’d love to hear examples of where listening made a real difference – to you, your development, a project you worked on, whatever it might be. Get in touch and let me know!