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Podcast Episode 099 : Why it’s worth listening to people you are in conflict with – Christopher Mills

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I am delighted to introduce Christopher Mills, a psychotherapist, a family consultant, a supervisor, and a trainer. Christopher began his work alongside family lawyers, helping them to develop skills to help them collaborate across divorce teams.

In 2009, he made “Deadlock to dialogue”. It was a film, an unrehearsed role-play combining the skills of mediation and psychotherapy when working with separating couples. His interest in mediation around childcare disputes led him to write “The complete guide to divorced parenting“, a strong advocate of the need for lawyers to receive more support in their work with family trauma.

He became the UK’s first professional to offer specific regular supervision for family lawyers and QCs

About six months ago, I was lucky enough to work with this community in Australia as well. And they bear a huge burden when they act on behalf of their clients in these cases. Deep listening podcast listeners have asked if I could do an episode on how to listen in conflict through the lens of relationships.

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Christopher Mills (00:04):

Conflict is intimacy, that’s what conflict is. The point where difference meets. Conflict is very, very important, and it’s very important not to back off from conflict. And if we just go, “Uh oh, I don’t really want to have anything to do with that,” there’s no deepening the relationship if the conflict is always just moved away from. Conflict in a way is the very essence of the story we’ve had. It’s his conflict with his own attitude towards racial difference, which then constellates into a conflict between him and me over the same thing, essentially. And also that question of, can we address this complicated and controversial issue? Can we address it honestly? I wouldn’t say I’m the bravest person in the world by any means, but it’s always my intention to not back off.

Oscar Trimboli (01:11):

Deep listening, impact beyond words.

G’day, I’m Oscar Trimboli, and this is the Apple Award-winning podcast Deep Listening, designed to move you from a distracted listener to a deep and impactful leader. Did you know you spend 55% of your day listening, yet only 2% of people have ever been taught how? In each episode we explore the five levels of listening. Communication is 50% speaking and 50% listening, yet as a leader you’re taught only the importance of communication from the perspective of how to speak. It’s critical you start to build some muscles for the next phase in how to listen. The cost of not listening, it’s confusion, it’s conflict, it’s projects running over schedule, it’s lost customer, it’s great employees that leave before they want to.

Oscar Trimboli (02:04):

When you implement the strategies, the tips and tactics that you’ll hear, you’ll get four hours a week back in your schedule. I wonder what you could do with an extra four hours a week?

Oscar Trimboli (02:20):

How do you listen during conflict and anger? Today, I’m delighted to introduce Christopher Mills, a psychotherapist, a family consultant, a supervisor and a trainer. And a special thank you to Annalise from London for the introduction to Christopher as well, really appreciate it when other people recommend people for the Deep Listening Podcast series.

Oscar Trimboli (02:45):

Christopher began his work alongside family lawyers, helping them to develop skills to help them collaborate across divorce teams. In 2009, he made Deadlock to Dialogue. It was a film, an unrehearsed roleplay combining the skills of mediation and psychotherapy when working with separating couples.

Oscar Trimboli (03:15):

His interest in mediation around childcare disputes led him to write “The Complete Guide to Divorced Parenting”, a strong advocate of the need for lawyers to receive more support in their work with family trauma. He became the UK’s first professional to offer specific irregular supervisions for family lawyers and QCs.

Oscar Trimboli (03:44):

About six months ago, I was lucky enough to work with this community in Australia as well, and they bear a huge burden when they act on behalf of their clients in these cases. A lot of Deep Listening Podcast listeners have asked if I could do an episode on how to listen in conflict through the lens of relationships, and I am absolutely delighted that we found Christopher and this interview takes me on a wonderful journey about my relationship with conflict, and why I need to lean much further into conflict than I do, rather than my default position, which is to avoid it.

Oscar Trimboli (04:28):

And I’m sure my avoidance dates back to my teenage years, when my parents separated as well. We start off with the same question that we ask everybody. Let’s hear Christopher’s perspective on the cost of not listening.

Oscar Trimboli (04:49):

Christopher, I’m curious, what do you think the cost of not listening is?

Christopher Mills (04:55):

A sense of worthlessness, a sense of lack of worth on the person who is not being listened to. A feeling that at the very essence of them, they don’t amount to very much in the eyes of the other person. I think to be the subject of somebody else’s lack of curiosity is fundamentally painful, and I think people who’ve grown up with it, people who grew up in households or families where their parents or their guardians didn’t listen to them, or didn’t show curiosity about them, or didn’t encourage them to talk about themselves and about what was going on inside them, I think those people do actually grow up with a strong sense that they don’t count for very much. And that effects the whole of their lives, often in ways that they would not be able to describe, partly because they’ve never been taught to describe what they feel.

Christopher Mills (05:58):

That’s one thing. And I think then if you have somebody who has been listened to, what they feel is that there’s a fundamental place for them in this world, whoever they are, and however different or strange or whatever they might be, that there’s a place for them in this world too, that they’re not outsiders, they’re not people who are longing and clamouring for attention that they’ll never get. That sense of low self-worth, that’s the biggest, most significant thing that is true of people who’ve never really been listened to, and never been taken seriously. They believe that will always be the case, and that they haven’t really arrived, and that they don’t really deserve.

Oscar Trimboli (06:41):

I’m curious if you’ve got a story that brings that to life.

Christopher Mills (06:46):

Going back to the starting point for me Oscar, it was an experience that I had. I first had therapy myself after my first marriage ended, a long time ago now. It’s about 35 years. And I went to see a counsellor quite briefly, and I remember in the very first session the thing that was such a revelation to me was that he listened to me. And whatever my burblings and my ramblings were, he listened to me, and he didn’t interrupt. And I was sort of astonished that he wasn’t either trying to reframe what I was saying, or judge it, or tell me I was wrong, or tell me to pull myself together. And I began to feel as if I was in this enormous play space where almost anything could happen, that was a bit scary in some respects. That was the starting point for me in realising, A, that I’d never really had the experience of being properly listened to.

Christopher Mills (07:50):

If that has been the case, you learn how to do it very quickly by what you receive when you’re listened to, the equation completes itself before your eyes and you see the power of what it is to be listened to through the experience of doing it yourself. And it wasn’t so much I think what I was talking about, it wasn’t in that moment at least the subject matter of what I was talking about. It was just the fact that I was being given this quality of attention, it wasn’t over-intense, it wasn’t threatening. It was very peaceful, it was very spacious, it was very loving, and it was… I didn’t feel in any sense that I had to take care of the counsellor by being careful about what I said. There’s a wonderful thing called Beisser’s Paradoxical Theory of Change.

Christopher Mills (08:39):

Beisser was a Gestalt therapist. The paradox is that he says people don’t change until they are fully, absolutely and completely understood for where they are right now, and it’s only when they’re fully understood for being where they are right now that the knot is released, and that change then becomes possible. That’s what happens if people are really, really listened to without judgement , and without being pushed prematurely into something that they’re not ready for. The readiness to change comes from within them when the conditions are right.

Oscar Trimboli (09:23):

In his book, The Case that Really Got to Me, Christopher does this great job of pausing and explaining some extra information during dialogue. He’ll explain how his counterpart is experiencing the moment, he might say, “Harry gazed up and looked puzzled as he explored the thought.” Or, Christopher will describe how he felt in that moment as well. The theme about listening carefully for what somebody meant, a lot of times we have to help them understand what they’re thinking before we understand what they mean, Christopher. For those who haven’t read the book, how do you help the counterpart fully explore what they haven’t said? Because for many of us, we’re too busy listening to what people say and reloading our argument rather than pausing and allowing the speaker… To allow their thinking to catch up with their speaking.

Christopher Mills (10:25):

It’s a very simple technique, and it does relate absolutely to the whole question of listening. Because one of the things that enables really good listening to somebody else is that you have to listen, you have to be listening to yourself. You have to be listening to what’s going on inside yourself at the point where what the other person is saying is landing in you, what the impact of it is on you. Now, that’s not the same as reloading your argument. It could be, that’s what we’re doing when we’re reloading our argument. We’re assessing how what the other person says lands in us so that we can then come back with something else. What I do in my work, I will often say to somebody, “Okay, that’s very interesting what you’ve just said.

Christopher Mills (11:13):

“A few minutes ago you said such-and-such, which sounds different, it sounds as if it’s coming from a different place. How do those two things sit together? Do they sit together?” And very often in that moment, the person who I’m listening to will have forgotten that they said the first thing five or 10 minutes ago, and then they’re reminded of it when I tell them. And then something happens in them, which is the question, “Yeah, how do those things go together?” And it could be in that moment they’re thinking, “I always thought those two things did go together. But actually just in the moment now that I’ve been re-presented with my own words, I realise that they don’t quite go together in the way that I thought they did.

Christopher Mills (12:01):

“I’m listening in myself for how what I’m being told lands, and the little kind of leaps and jumps that are going on inside me. Not always actually directly inside my head, sometimes I feel them more in my stomach. There’s a kind of, ‘Oh, hang on.’ This, ‘Hmm, what’s going on here?'” It’s not unusual for me at all when I’m working with a supervisee or a client, I will quite often on that basis say to them, “Just hold it just there for a second, because there’s something I’m trying to catch and I can’t quite catch it.” And they always will, they’re massively accommodating in that kind of way. They will always do it, because what I’m saying is I’m trying to hear what you’re saying, and I’m trying to take it in and deal wit hit.

Christopher Mills (12:52):

So, just be patient with me because there’s a piece here that I’m trying to grab. So, there’s something that I’m getting which is not that I’m interrupting them, or not that I’m trying to say something bigger and better and bolder than what they’re saying. It’s that I’m genuinely trying to catch what it is they’re saying, it’s a kind of indication of how deeply I am in fact listening to them. So, something about the listening very intently is trying to do the best that I can with the jigsaw that’s being presented to me. And sometimes thinking of it figuratively in that way I’ll think, “Hmm, the picture is beginning to take shape, but there’s a few pieces missing. I wonder if there’s a way in which I can help the person to whom the jigsaw belongs,” if you see what I mean, “To find those extra pieces.”

Christopher Mills (13:40):

So, the listening is two-way, it’s always two-way, I’m listening to the other person but listening to myself for my reactions and responses, visceral, intellectual, emotional, and trying to use those as material for taking the conversation forward. But, without making the conversation then about me. And that’s such a subtle difference, it’s very much not about reloading the argument in my favour or whatever. I shall cherish that phrase now, I’ll be using it all the time. But it is very much about staying with the client, but being real to what it is that they said, and how it’s landed in me, and how I can use that. That’s to do with the fact that this process is inter-subjective, it’s a relationship. It’s not somebody just doing something to or for somebody else, it’s two people inter-reacting and reacting to each other.

Oscar Trimboli (14:40):

As you were talking about listening to yourself, when we talk about the five levels of listening we often laugh that a lot of listening models forget that step, they jump straight to focus on the person who’s speaking. I’d love to just play with something that we regularly come across, which is giving attention and paying attention. When you’re truly listening, which one shows up when?

Christopher Mills (15:10):

Listening to you as I am very carefully, Oscar, the thing that lands in me when you use the word paying attention reminds me of being back at school, and being told, “Pay attention.” And I always have this vision of money changing hands at the point of paying attention, and never quite understood what it meant. But I think what it really meant was, stop wandering, stop drifting, stop daydreaming, which was something I was always doing as a child. Giving attention I think speaks to me more, because I think it is like an act of donation. I think it is something that we consciously have to do, and we have to prepare ourselves to do. So if somebody wants to talk to me, if my wife says, “You know, I really want to talk to you about something,” in that moment I hear the tone in her voice that this isn’t just a shopping list that she wants to talk about.

Christopher Mills (15:58):

It’s something more significant, more important than that. I think in my head I figuratively make space, and I think, “Okay, whatever it was I thought I was going to be doing for the next 15 minutes, I’m going to put that on hold and I’m going to listen.” And there’s a moment of deliberation, there’s a moment of doing that. So I think giving speaks to me more than paying attention, paying feels like something… I had to put my hand in my pocket and cough up something that I don’t really want to. But of course, sometimes you don’t want to listen. I mean, sometimes if I’m very busy with something else, I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to listen to what somebody else wants to say to me. One of the things that I think is critically important in that moment, in being true to oneself, is to say, “I do want to listen to what you’ve got to say to me.

Christopher Mills (16:46):

“And actually I can’t do it right now, because my attention is completely diverted somewhere else. Can it wait, can you come back to me in a couple of hours when I finish doing what I’m doing? And then you will have my absolute attention.” So, I think part of the donating of attention, the giving of attention, it needs to be real, it needs to be authentic, it doesn’t need to be an act of sacrifice. I mean, I suppose sometimes it’s going to be an act of self-sacrifice in the moment where it’s incredibly urgent. But if it’s not urgent, if I’m going to be really listening to what somebody else wants to tell me, I need to make sure I’m really ready to do that. It’s my responsibility to be ready to do that, and to communicate that readiness to them.

Christopher Mills (17:29):

Because we’re not all… We don’t always have attention to space for whatever reason. We lead busy lives, there’s a lot that we have to attend to. The giving, and the being ready to give, and the being very honest about that is really important. Paying, I think I’d be happy to leave that in the schoolroom, actually.

Oscar Trimboli (17:49):

Just being conscious where our attention is, giving feels like an act of generosity and curiosity, paying feels like your duty in taxation. One of the things we work with leaders, and this is a question that comes up regularly from people who are listening, how do you skillfully interrupt when you’re listening?

Christopher Mills (18:12):

It’s very interesting. I train other people to become supervisors, and I notice it a lot that when they’re doing their practise sessions, to begin with at least, they wouldn’t dream of interrupting. It would be a little bit like stamping on someone’s foot to interrupt, they’re treating their client in the practise session as if they’re made of cut glass, that actually they cannot be interrupted. And I think there’s a lot to be said for not interrupting, that lovely thing, W.A.I.T, wait, why am I talking, is a very, very important one. And I think when we get, certainly speaking for myself, when I get very excited by what somebody’s telling me, I can get a bit jumpy. I kind of want to interrupt because I’m enjoying it, and I’m wanting to share the thought that’s just arrived with me.

Christopher Mills (19:08):

And very often I do far better if I just shut up. So if I consciously say to myself, “Just be quiet, just await the moment.” But there are other things where interrupting is easy if it’s done in the right spirit, and if it’s not being done perversely and it’s not being done competitively. And I’ve found this a lot with all kinds of different clients, that if somebody’s telling me something and I’m really listening very attentively to them, and I think they know that, and I say to them, “I just need to stop you, I’m sorry to interrupt, forgive me for interrupting, but I just need to stop you because there’s just something that’s not quite making sense to me, and I don’t want to lose it. Can you just run past me again what you just said about X, Y, Z? Because I didn’t quite catch it.”

Christopher Mills (20:03):

Now, nobody, no client has ever said to me, “Oh, for God’s sake, I was in the middle of my flow. Why did you interrupt me?” Never, ever, ever has anybody said that. Because I think that the evidence base for which I’m interrupting them is that I’m listening to them, and that if I don’t interrupt them and they just carry on and I get lost, something perverse has happened. I’ve kind of let them go, I’ve let them flow off the end of the hill kind of thing without stopping them. So I think if interrupting is stopping in order to try and gain greater understanding, in my experience it’s never treated as that kind of interruption that irritates us, it’s always treated as a kind of useful building block. And, I encourage people to do that.

Christopher Mills (20:54):

Not every time there’s something that’s said that they don’t quite get, or they don’t quite understand. And sometimes I’ll say it several minutes later, I might say, “You said a few minutes ago X, and I just wanted to pause for a moment and capture that again. Because I think in light of what you’ve said since then, I’m not sure that I fully understood it.” Interrupting isn’t always in the moment, but there are other times where I will actually say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, just hold it there, hold it there, hold it there,” even when people are in mid-flow. I think if I do it in the spirit of, because I’m fascinated and there’s something I risk not understanding, as I said before if it annoys them they’d never, ever told me that. It always seems to be their eyes are bright, and they look really excited I think at the idea that I’m listening to them that attentively. That I’m not kind of letting them get away with something that I might not catch, or mightn’t understand.

Oscar Trimboli (21:55):

We often talk about that interruption, skillfully done, is as powerful a signal of listening as not interrupting. And I think it takes a good deal of judgement , but a great deal of curiosity and fascination to create a space where people are okay with that. So, I just want to reinforce a point that Christopher’s made, that interruption is about intention, it’s not about the technique. And sometimes it’s to help you understand more, and quite often it’s to help them understand the connections between what they’ve said. In the book, Christopher, the one case that stood out for me was the work you were doing with Harry. And where you started the conversation with him about the court dispute in the family situation that he was dealing with, where that finished up was completely different. Do you mind taking a moment to share the story of Harry?

Christopher Mills (23:13):

The story of Harry is founded very much on my relationship with this fictional character, who like every fictional character is based to some extent on a composite of real characters. And I think it’s based on my relationship with Harry, because one of the points I make in that story is that I really like this guy. I think he’s got an incredibly good heart, he means very well, he’s very affable, he’s very friendly, he wants the best for his clients, he wants the best for everybody. And he also belongs to… And I think I probably am speaking of a culture which is widespread, I mean I’m British and I work in the UK. So, I’m talking very much about a culture that exists in this country, I think others from other places will identify with what I’m saying.

Christopher Mills (24:04):

Harry in the story lives in a very white part of the country, where you would see relatively few non-white people. Now, people who don’t know the demography of the UK, there are some areas which are very, very multi-ethnic, and other areas which are not. And that’s changing gradually, but for the moment there are some areas of the UK where you would tend to see only white faces for the vast majority of the time. There are other parts of the UK where you could see a majority of non-white faces, but then much fewer on the whole, given the spread of the whole country. So, Harry hasn’t come into contact with many black people, he is middle class, he is white, he is very comfortably off, he’s had an extremely privileged life, and he’s a very nice guy, and he’s very well-meaning.

Christopher Mills (25:04):

He’s not arrogant, he’s not… On the face of it, he’s not racist. But what I’ve tried to represent in the story of Harry is a very complex and difficult debate that’s certainly going on in this country, to a large extent has been led until recently by a lot of white people saying, “I’m not racist, I’m not racist, I don’t have a problem with non-white people.” These are very often the people who know least about what it’s like to be prejudiced against, because in this country certainly if you’re male and white and well-educated and articulate and professional, you’re just about the most privileged person in the world. And unfortunately it’s often the most privileged person in the world who spend the most time talking about…

Christopher Mills (26:00):

They’re the ones who are seen as the experts on all things, and prejudice is certainly an area where they are not expert at all. Harry hits this wall when he comes to see me, and I am also hitting that wall too as another very privileged white person, about how is it that we talk about a black client? And in this case, the client is a guy who Harry doesn’t agree with. He doesn’t agree with the client over the client’s way of seeing childcare arrangements following the ending of his marriage. And Harry is horrified by the idea of not agreeing with this black client, in case the black client says, or thinks Harry’s just being racist. Really, the dialogue is between two white men in the absence of anybody black being in on that actual conversation about how to deal with it.

Christopher Mills (26:57):

What I was trying to catch in that conversation was the tension that is absolutely present for a huge number of white people, and I think a huge number of white people want to deny this, the presence of the sense of guilt that they feel historically over how black people have been treated.

Christopher Mills (27:21):

In the story about Harry, I was trying to catch some of the tensions in that. Going back to a point that you made a few minutes ago, Oscar, which is quite interesting, about interrupting and whether that’s okay for a client or not, in this case my interruption of Harry was not okay for him at all, he hated it. And I hated it too actually, because I’m very fond of Harry, I didn’t want to upset him. But there was a sort of…

Christopher Mills (27:47):

There was something that I felt I had to address with him in order for our conversation not to go round in a potentially rather collusive loop, in which we could just potentially make each other, as two white men, try and feel a bit better about ourselves as white men in the face of this dilemma that Harry was facing with a black client. And I wasn’t aiming for it to come out at the end with a kind of, “Phew, happy solution. Good, we’ve solved that one.” But rather to highlight aspects of that complex journey that I think all of us are on in our different places, in increasingly multi-ethnic society.

Oscar Trimboli (28:28):

I love the point made at the end outside of the dialogue about being conscious of difference. We talk about, do you listen to difference, do you listen for difference, are you listening to similarity, are you listening for similarity? And in the dialogue, one of the things you had the courage, and I want to encourage people who are listening to go there, you didn’t stop at the surface, and this is why you were able to get a little bit deeper into the conversation. And the dialogue moved from transactional to transformation when you did, mid-dialogue there was a bit of a bust up happening. But you kept going, and I was curious, where are you sensing that from? Is that coming from your head, is that coming from your stomach? Where was that presence, because as you said you have to be listening to yourself.

Oscar Trimboli (29:27):

Where was that presence to go further with it? Because it would have been easy to just skate across the top and just be about a parental custody issue, which was the entry point for the conversation.

Christopher Mills (29:41):

It’s the value I think, Oscar, of knowing my own intention. And my own intention is to be honest, even when I know that being honest is going to ruffle feathers, or it’s likely to ruffle feathers, as it certainly did in the story of Harry. It’s my duty to my relationship with Harry really, am I somebody that shows up, or am I somebody that kind of stalls at the fence where it looks like something difficult might happen? Can I risk that Harry and I can attack something together and struggle with it, and therefore maybe struggle with each other and come out the other side? Can I take that risk, or am I just going to be so scared that it’s going to destroy our relationship completely that I won’t go there? Maybe when I wrote that story, I wanted to illustrate that conflict is very, very important, and it’s very important not to back off from a conflict.

Christopher Mills (30:44):

Conflict is intimacy, that’s what conflict is. It’s the point where difference meets. And if we just go, “Uh oh, I don’t really want to have anything to do with that,” then there is… As you were intimating, there’s no deepening of the relationship, because the conflict is always just moved away from. So, conflict in a way is the very essence of the story with Harry. It’s his conflict with his own attitude towards racial difference, which then constellates into a conflict between him and me over the same thing, essentially. And also that question of, can we address this complicated and controversial issue? Can we address it honestly, or do I in this case as the professional, do I back off? I wouldn’t say I’m the bravest person in the world by any means, but it’s always my intention to not back off.

Christopher Mills (31:37):

Where that maybe comes from, sometimes I’m working with quite disturbed people who have very, very difficult background experiences, and sometimes they will get very, very angry with me. Anger in the psychotherapy space is something that you can’t back away from, it’s essential communication. And sometimes I’ve been accused of things by a client who will say, “You’re not listening to me, you don’t care about me, I am just a client to you. All this is a big sham, you’re just putting on a show.”

Christopher Mills (32:05):

All phenomenally good questions, which if I’m really honest with myself I have to check on. I have to think, “Is that true, is that true, is that true?” And over many years I’ve worked out that it’s not true, my intentions really are good, that I really am listening. I can’t guarantee that I will always understand, but I am always listening.

Christopher Mills (32:27):

And I’ve had to say to clients occasionally, “I’m really sorry that that’s the way you feel, and I can see how angry you are with me, and I can see how let down you feel. But for the record, I want to tell you that you’re wrong, and that I can assure you that my intentions are actually good towards you. I might fail, I might get things wrong, but I think what you need to know is that my intentions are absolutely right.”

Christopher Mills (32:54):

It can look like a defensive position, and maybe in the moment it feels a bit defensive. But I think also where it’s coming from is, I want to give you accurate information. And what I want to tell you is, the accurate information is I am in fact on your side. I might get things wrong, and you might not feel even as if I’m on your side. I just want to tell you in case there’s something you can do with this spare fact, that I am.

Christopher Mills (33:23):

That doesn’t always change things in the moment, but over time I think it really does profoundly change things. Because we all get things wrong, the person that you’re speaking to knows that. We all get things wrong, we all have attention dropout, we all have moments when we’re not listening as carefully as we might do. But, that doesn’t mean that our intentions are not basically good. Life isn’t perfect, it’s not a kind of perfect run. And if we set ourselves and other people up to expect that it should be, then there’s going to be massive disappointments all the time. It’s always our best shot, it’s always our best effort, and that won’t always be good enough. But, I think the important thing is to stick in there. And so, knowing that one’s intentions are right is hugely important.

Christopher Mills (34:09):

I think clients will forgive us a huge amount, actually, if they know that we’re trying, we’re trying our best. And that’s why I go back to what I said earlier, about this being a genuine rough, rocky, two-way human interaction that is not perfect. And I think if we set ourselves up in whatever professional group we’re in as being too smart, too shiny, too all-knowing, we just set ourselves and in a strange way the client up to fail. It’s best to avoid all of that.

Christopher Mills (34:44):

I like the muddle in Harry’s story, and I’m really glad that you’ve picked up on it. The kind of difficult, hot, worried sort of muddle of Harry and I muddling through something in the hope of gaining greater understanding, and not destroying anything.

Oscar Trimboli (35:02):

And completely unresolved, there is nothing in there that was resolved, which was the lovely bit of humanity I was picking up. There was nothing with a nice, neat bow tied around. The resolution at the end, you were just sitting in the ambiguity at the end of that conversation with absolutely no resolution.

Christopher Mills (35:27):

And that’s just such a great place to sit, isn’t it? I mean, that again is such a human place to sit with somebody, in that place of not knowing, that place of complete ambiguity. It’s a very intimate space to occupy.

Oscar Trimboli (35:45):

I wonder what you’ve just learned about listening during conflict, what pushes your buttons, what gets in your way, what triggers you when someone says something you fiercely want to get into an argument with. For me, I took away the courage not to back down when it comes to conflict. The phrase conflict is intimacy is kind of tattooed on my brain, I’m struggling to get it out after listening to Christopher.

Oscar Trimboli (36:18):

Who else would you suggest as a guest for the Deep Listening Podcast? Email me,, that’s, and be like Annalise, who recommended Christopher for this interview.

Oscar Trimboli (36:32):

Thank you to the people on the deep listening community of practice. Thank you to the people on the Deep Listening Ambassadors Group, who all suggested the topic of listening to conflict during relationships. I’m taking away how to listen differently in the moment, and how to be okay with not having an outcome, with not making progress during the conversation as well. Christopher does such a great job of being human, being okay with not knowing the answer, being okay with muddling along, as he said. One thing that surprises people when I’m working with them is quite often I’ll say, “Do you mind saying that again? I’m sorry, I got distracted. I lost my way, do you mind saying that again?” And I think it comes back to Christopher’s point about intention. If you do that because you genuinely couldn’t care less and you were off somewhere else, people will notice that.

Oscar Trimboli (37:36):

But if you’re struggling and struggling to give full and undivided attention in that moment, I think it’s a sign of respect to you, to them, to the conversation, and ultimately to the relationship if you admit that you’re not 100% right, not 100% polished, not 100% tied off.

Oscar Trimboli (37:58):

If you want to stay on for a bit longer, and Christopher and I have a conversation about what he noticed in my listening, and what’s the most common question he gets from the people he works with when it comes to listening as well.

Oscar Trimboli (38:14):

I’m Oscar Trimboli, and I’m on a quest to create 100 million deep listeners in the world. You’ve given me the greatest gift of all, you’ve listened to me. Thanks for listening.

Oscar Trimboli (38:34):

I’m curious about what you’ve noticed in how I’ve been listening today.

Christopher Mills (38:40):

Oh, the way you’ve been listening to me has been wonderful, it’s been wonderful and accurate. I feel as if you’ve given me masses of space to explore, revisit my own ideas, and I feel that the way that you’ve come back on some of the points has been exciting for me in the sense that it’s made me realise things about my own writing that I hadn’t appreciated. You’ve picked things up from the Harry story that we’ve been talking about that hadn’t quite occurred to me. I think your listening has been great and gentle and challenging, at times you’ve forced me into thinking in a way that is exciting and stimulating.

Oscar Trimboli (39:32):

What do you think one question I should have asked that I haven’t asked?

Christopher Mills (39:37):

People come up to me very often when I’ve been doing a training, talking about listening skills. For example, and they go, “But how do you do it?” It’s the do question. How do you do it? “Look, just give me a list of five things, Chris. Give me a… Tell me, do this, then do this, then do this. I want to know how to do it.” It’s a bit like, how do I be a car mechanic? And we live in such a do culture, don’t we? We live in such a kind of, “I want the instructions, give me the instructions.” And I think that one of the things that’s at the very essence of how you and I have been talking today, Oscar, is that the kind of skills, if you want to call them that, of listening, they’re a bit more like slow-cook, they’re a bit more like making a very, very long, slow spaghetti sauce.

Christopher Mills (40:24):

There is skill involved, but there’s also a great deal of intuition, there’s a great deal of experience. And there’s also a great deal of knowing oneself, that’s really, really important. Knowing who I am and being confident with who I am is a really important starting block for listening to somebody else. There is no instruction manual that says, “In order to be a good listener, you have to do this.”

Christopher Mills (40:51):

It would be a bit like saying, “In order to go and play a Chopin Nocturne on the piano, “Look, it’s easy. All you have to do is one, two, three, four, five.” Actually, what you have to do is you have to go away and practice, practice, practice, as the phrase goes, and you have to do it for a very long time. I think people will probably say… They’d probably still be saying, “Oh no, that’s great, that’s great. But how do you do it?” I’ve never got past that question, really.

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