By Cailin Crosby
Are you a good listener? Most of us probably think that we are at least decent listeners. After all, we are communicating in some form or another all day every day: texting, talking, emailing, Snapchatting, tweeting. We’re taking in and sending out loads of information every day, but how much of that input and output are we actually paying attention to?
And what about when it’s not social media or work emails but instead a close friend, parent or partner telling us something important. How much are we truly attending to? Just because we hear the words coming out of someone’s mouth, does that mean we’re being a good listener? What does being a good listener really entail?
Presence versus Problem-Solving
Think of a time when you really felt heard and understood. Now think a time when you felt the person you were talking to was distracted or disinterested. While we’ve likely experienced both
scenarios, can we name what separates one experience from the other? And are we guilty of being the distracted, disinterested listener from time to time? Of course! Our minds wander, our emotions
interfere and sometimes we are genuinely disinterested in the topic.
It’s unrealistic to hold ourselves (or anyone else) to being the ideal listener all the time. But how can we commit to being a bit better? One way is developing awareness of our current listening
habits by reflecting on those experiences of feeling heard and not heard and identifying what was happening during those times.
For example, have you ever been explaining an issue to someone and before you’re finished, the person you’re speaking to starts chiming in with advice or suggestions on how to ‘solve’ your problem? And when this happens, how often do you wish they would just listen – not try to solve your problems? When this happens, what we’re really asking for is presence; for the listener to be present with us, to sit with us in our frustration, anger, or sadness.
So why does ‘just listening’ seem so hard? For starters, we typically avoid uncomfortable or distressing emotions. Jumping into problem-solving mode is one way to sidestep experiencing those
uncomfortable emotions. We may think we’re being helpful but are we really giving the other person what they need?
Secondly, it’s natural to want to help fix someone else’s problems, especially when we care about that person. In my last blog I talked about the brain as a problem solver. Our brains are wired to troubleshoot and gaining some control over this instinct can take effort. Luckily, the skills we develop to become more attuned to our internal dialogue are the same set of skills we can use to help us become more mindful listeners.
Being fully present and listening mindfully (that is, attending to both our internal cues as well as the needs of the person speaking) might feel like a lot of work at first, but you’ll be surprised at how much it improves your communication and relationships with others. It can help you avoid talking through the same issues repeatedly because you weren’t really hearing each other in the first place.
How to Practice Mindful Listening
So, how do we become more mindful listeners? First, we want to bring ourselves into the present moment. This may mean noticing what’s bubbling up into your mind such as an emotion, the desire to give advice or a random off-topic thought. As you do this, try to practice noticing without engaging; for instance, ‘I’m noticing an urge to interrupt and tell them what I think would help’. Be aware of the urge coming up then notice that it also passes. When your mind wanders, try not to resist it or judge yourself – just be aware of it and then bring your attention back to the speaker.
Being present may also mean removing distractions from the environment; turning off the TV or putting your cell phone away. Studies have shown that even having your cell phone in the room can interfere with establishing trust and closeness in interpersonal communication.
We can also use our senses to be more mindful listeners:
- watching for visual cues such as someone’s body language and facial expressions
- listening to the tone, speed, and pace of someone’s voice
Next, try summarizing what the person has said. Try to match the tone of the initial telling and then ask whether you got it right. This second part is important because whether you get it right or not provides valuable feedback. If they correct you, try not to become defensive; consider it a positive sign that they want you to understand and are willing to help you understand. This back and forth can cultivate compassion and strengthen communication. Try using these phrases the next time you’re summarizing:
- What I’m hearing you say is…
- It seems as though…
- It sounds like…
- ….is that right?
Finally, consider whether you’re listening to understand, or listening to reply. Are we jumping to talk to fill dead air and avoid silence? It is also perfectly reasonable to ask for a moment to think before responding. This shows you’re processing what they said and want to reply thoughtfully.
As with anything new, developing mindful listening skills will take time and practice. In the same way that your mind will wander when trying any mindfulness practice, so too will your mind wander when you’re trying to be present and mindfully listen. That’s okay! Each time you notice your mind wandering, gently and non-judgmentally bring it back to the speaker and to the present moment. There’s no wasted effort; every time you practice doing a task mindfully, you’re building on these skills.
Do you need someone to listen?