Grief, hope and clarity

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When it comes to work direction, lightbulb moments of clarity can hit at the strangest times, but I never expected this…

I’ve been wrestling with uncertainty in the last few years, hunting for new direction, in work and in life. The end of my marriage, the end of Valuable Content, a new leadership role and then Covid. To say the least, there’s been a fair amount of change going on.

Mid lockdown, after just shy of a year as a senior manager in Nationwide Building Society’s experience design department, I re-entered the world of independent consulting. I’ve loved it, and have been lucky to find work with a range of great clients — a research charity, a membership organisation, a small digital agency kicking it up a storm, and some brilliant solo experts doing their bit to make a living their way — fantastic people, all striving to make the world a better place. The work has been enjoyable and varied, a mix of coaching on content and marketing issues, help with purpose and positioning, website project management, comms strategy and leadership. I’ve been fine with the variety — my plan was always to give myself a bit of time, to listen, think and feel my way into new focus.

And then a massive bomb — the devastating loss of my mum, Caroline, at the end of August. 77 years old, she was full of life, laughter and enthusiasm, the last person you’d expect to go. She died suddenly of an aneurysm whilst doing what she loved best, sailing with my dad, amongst friends. Right out of the blue, she was gone. The weeks since her death have been the hardest I’ve ever faced — nothing prepares you for this.

My mum was a very special person — a fierce-loving mother, grandmother, wife, psychotherapist, sailor and loyal friend. We’ve received hundreds of letters and cards of condolence. Despite being limited in numbers because of Covid, the funeral was beautiful with many great stories and memories of her life.

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One theme stood out clearly from all the words shared — the way Mum listened.

As a therapist, she specialised in counselling people with serious addiction issues. She undoubtedly saved lives and transformed many others. With the quality of her listening in mind, it’s no wonder she was good at what she did. She always knew how to ask the right questions and tuned in with total attention, empathy and compassion. A rare skill. She made people feel respected and good about themselves. She got to the heart of the issue. And made us feel understood. That’s an incredible gift to give.

Sitting in the crematorium, as the tears flowed, I had a powerful thought. The world could really do with more listening right now. If my mum’s legacy is listening, was there a way I could carry this forward?

Listening has been a theme in my work for a long while. It’s a process at the heart of the approach I’ve developed over the years to help a business set direction and strategy, find their story or work out what content will be truly valuable. Listening to a mix of external customers and internal teams has provided the insight that’s sparked the best ideas. The feedback has helped people find the answer they need, to discover where their true value lies and what it is they are here to do. (I firmly believe that feedback shouldn’t be reserved for someone’s funeral!). This is work that I really enjoy.

I’ve had coaching myself recently, with 360 feedback as part of the process. Listening came up high on my list of signature strengths. I know I have more to learn here but I’d love to think this is an attribute I’ve inherited from my mum.

I’ve heard from others that loss and grief can be a tool for transformation, a catalyst for new direction and focus. Perhaps this revelation is a sliver of hope I can pull from the pain of losing her.

Can I make listening more of a focus in my work? How about more strategic listening and feedback projects to help others set direction? Can I go deeper into the coaching process, and support more people this way? Maybe a mission to help the business world embrace listening as a strategy. And in doing so ensure that Mum’s legacy continues through me.

This isn’t a huge shift in direction for me, more a refocusing and doubling down. I’m still a consultant and coach, but I really want to hone the listening process at the heart of all I do.

I’m going to throw myself in and learn all I can — to try and master the art of questioning, listening and feedback, and work out how to apply what I discover for businesses that care. I’m curious to see where this line of enquiry leads.

I’d love your thoughts on this. Is it something people need? Could I listen for a living? What do I need to read or do to delve deeper into the art of listening?

I really do have more questions than answers right now. Any feedback most welcome. I’m all ears.

[Poster found in Bristol, thanks to street artist #DFTE. Photo of Caroline Nisson taken by my super talented sister, Kristina].

Sonja Nisson (previously Jefferson) is fascinated by the challenge of creating a valuable business, with content that resonates. She founded Valuable Content and is co-author of Valuable Content Marketing — how to make quality content your key to success.

Connect and chat with Sonja on LinkedIn.

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