Wednesday 27 June 2018

Being Jimmy Perez: Shetland and the Art of Listening

Spoiler alert: this post touches on aspects of the British television crime drama “Shetland.”

Photo credit: Doris Pecka.

Fran and I watch a lot of tv and movies together. Our talking done for the evening, Fran turns her laptop (and thus me) to face her television and we settle down to Netflix, a DVD, or occasionally a tv show.

We can see each other reflected in the screen: Fran on her couch and me in my desk chair. We might comment on what’s going on or ask a question but it’s hard to hear each other unless Fran pauses the show. So for the most part we sit and watch – and listen – in companionable silence.

It sometimes feels like we do this a bit much. We used to talk more, sharing what had gone on for us that day or making plans for whatever was coming up. We still do that, of course, just less than we did. There are reasons for the change, not least the fact that Fran’s fatigue has been especially hard on her this year. By the time we get together of an evening she is often too tired to talk much. But the other night as we watched the British detective drama “Shetland” something fell into place for me about the value and importance of listening.

We both love the show: the stunning scenery, the gritty city environment of Glasgow, the accents, the superb writing and storylines. We’ve taken the characters very much into our hearts. Played by Douglas Henshall, Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez is one of very few male roles I’ve ever identified with or wanted to emulate. This series has seen him navigate a range of personal challenges, most notably with his detective sergeant Alison “Tosh” Macintosh (played by Alison O'Donnell), his stepdaughter Cassie (Erin Armstrong), and Cassie’s biological father Duncan (Mark Bonnar). Jimmy and Duncan have a close, awkward, almost brotherly, relationship that is beautiful to watch.

What struck me is how good Perez is with people going through crisis and change. (He is less good with his own crises and changes, but isn’t that the way of things? The series closes with a hint he may finally be finding a way forward.) Whether interviewing a suspect, talking with witnesses, confronting a violent crime boss, or engaging with colleagues, his stepdaughter, or a new lover, Jimmy Perez is usually calm and measured, although he can be assertive when necessary. He doesn’t always get it right but he owns his mistakes. He comes across as honest, genuine, and caring. He is someone you’d feel safe with.

It is this aspect of his character that most interests me. More and more I find myself in a listening role. I don’t always know what to say but I have learned that what matters most is showing up, being present, and being prepared to listen. It is good to see this demonstrated so clearly, even if it is in a fictional setting.

A friend said to me the other day, “The distinction between hearing and listening is important.” She’s right. So often we imagine we have been listening to someone when really all we did was register the sounds they made. Listening is as much about the spaces between the words (and at the end of them) as it is about the words themselves. It is not as easy as it might seem.

At a meeting last week with our company’s mental health team I suggested setting up a small lending library. I have lots of relevant books at home and am more than happy to bring them in. One is Gail Evans’ Counselling Skills for Dummies: A Practical Guide to Becoming a Better Communicator and Listener. It has lots of useful information, tips, and techniques. It is well worth checking out if you get chance. I might read it again before I take it in.

Genuine listening involves far more than letting someone talk. (Or write. Much of my listening takes place online using social media, instant messaging, and emails.) There are certain things not to do. Don’t interrupt. Don’t leap in with potential fixes or your own experiences. These get in the way and are rarely as relevant to the other person as you imagine. There are specific things you can do. Check in now and again to confirm you are picking up what the other person wants to convey. Ask for clarification if necessary. Encourage gently. If you want to know more, check out the Dummies book – or ours.

Best of all, practice. That means engaging – with your friends, colleagues, partner, children, strangers. We are all different and our needs are complex and wonderful. This was brought home to me on a neurodiversity workshop I attended recently at work. The course material was good but what I found most valuable was listening as the trainers and others in the group shared their experiences, and I shared mine. (I have just noticed I am wearing a Stigma Fighters t-shirt today with the slogan “Sharing Our Stories.”)

This is where the magic happens. We can aspire to no higher calling than to be someone others feel safe enough with to be vulnerable. Be like that. Be like Jimmy.


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