Mindful Listening


December is the time of Winter Solstice, short days, and winter holidays. It is a season for getting together with friends and family, a time for connection and kindness. I have been thinking and teaching a lot on kindness lately, and it occurred to me that one of the kindest things we can do for each other is be good listeners.

How good are you at listening?  I know that for me, Mindful Listening is something I need to be reminded of often, and a daily practice. 

Have you ever reflected on what is happening in your mind when someone is talking to you? Have you ever noticed that while you're listening to someone speak, your mind responds with: (a) queueing up examples of what you've experienced or read about that's similar to them, so that you have something to say at first opening in conversation; (b) pieces of advice to give when it's your turn to talk; (c) the thing you were thinking about when they started talking to you that you can't stop thinking about it, or something totally unrelated, i.e. pure mind wandering. 

On the flip side, have you, when speaking to someone, ever experienced the reactions that come from the above? (a) The person you are speaking to responds by talking about themselves, possibly also interrupting you mid-thought; (b) you get advice which you may or may not have asked for; (c) their eyes suggest that they are not quite listening. The result? You may not feel heard, and the conversation may not be all that satisfying. 

We fully mean to be present for the person we are speaking to, we care about them, we want to be a good friend, but we just can't help our minds. We may or may not even be conscious that any of this is happening, because this kind of distracted listening is basically a habit, and most people do it at least to some extent. Why do we do this? In part, we mirror the other’s experience with our own, or with advice, because we want to connect and to offer validation. In part, it’s because we might be uncomfortable with what we are being told, and we’re looking for something to say that is “appropriate". Of course, if the speaker is at all confrontational or is pushing our buttons, the challenge is multiplied. In the end, all of these possibilities are more about us than about the person we are speaking to. I say this not to judge myself, or you if you do this, but to describe something that occurs quite naturally! Our minds wander and look for comfort zones. Let’s acknowledge this and hold it with acceptance and compassion, rather than judgment.

So if you're with me so far, what can we do day to day to be better listeners, to have more deep and meaningful interactions, to be kinder to those who speak to us? There are a couple of beautifully simple practices you can do. One of them can be practiced on your own absolutely in any conversation you have, be it at work, at home, or anywhere where a longer conversation may occur. For the second one, you will need to recruit a partner: spouses are excellent candidates for this, and so are kids, friends, coworkers, neighbors. 

Mindful Listening Practice 1: Active Listening

This is a practice for two willing participants. First, you will need to pick a subject. You can pick any random topic, or have the speaker choose what they want to talk about. Then, time them for a minute. During that minute, when they speak, your job as a listener is just to make eye contact and listen. In particular, you are not allowed to talk, to nod, to smile. Can you instead put yourself in the other person’s shoes, try to understand as deeply as you can what it’s like to be them in this moment as they are sharing something with you?  

When the minute is up, you switch. Instead, now you have a minute, and you can choose your subject. The roles are reversed. You speak, and the other person looks you in the eye and does not respond in any way at all. They will try and put themselves completely inside your perspective.

At the end of this exercise, take a moment to jot down what this experience was like for each of you, separately. What came up for you as a listener or speaker? What did you learn from this experience? Then talk about it. Whether you love every second of this exercise, or find some discomfort in it, I guarantee you will have some interesting insights from the experience. 

At the end of the exercise, if you feel like you really need to respond to what the other person told you, then feel free. But notice how what you feel compelled to say might be different after this practice from what you would have said otherwise. 

I encourage you to repeat this practice together, maybe even extending your talking/listening times to 2 or 3 minutes. 

Mindful Listening Practice 2: Building Awareness of Our Listening Habits 

Any time you are in a conversation, observe what your mind is doing, and your impulses to speak. As the other person speaks, are you fully focused on just hearing them, or is your mind busy looking for the next thing you will say? If you look closely, you will be surprised at how often the latter happens! Just becoming aware of this pattern, observing it each time it occurs, and holding it with compassion - rather than judgment for yourself - is half the battle, because this awareness will help you turn some of these patterns around. 

For the more advanced version of this practice, the next step would be to challenge yourself to hold out longer before speaking, and spend more time listening. Again, your job as the listener is to put yourself in the shoes of the other person. Observe what comes to you from that kind of empathy. In particular, you might find that your mind stills more, and instead of thinking of the next thing to say you will just be present with the other person. This is a truly giving way of listening. Then, just observe how your response is impacted by that experience. 

Implications of Mindful Listening are Far-Reaching

Mindful listening allows each of us to contribute to a more compassionate world, in ways tiny and huge. It allows us to improve our daily interactions with those nearest us. It also allows us to listen without reaction (or with less reaction) to those who may really push our buttons, because our primary job as listener becomes to hear the other person, and to observe impulses to relate or respond or defend. Tiny shifts in how we listen can lead to big changes in our lives and those of others. 

For a beautiful example of just this kind of listening on a bigger scale, check out the wonderful episode of the “On Being” podcast about listening across a wide divide. This is a truly inspiring example sorely needed in our times.

I would love to hear from you on how this relates to your own experience, and what you learn from doing the practices. Post a comment, or contact me by email or the Contact page on this site.