How to Practice Mindful Listening

“The most basic of all human needs is to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

-Ralph Nichols

We’ve all been there- one of your colleagues is enthusiastically telling you about their recent trip to wine country and we can’t stop thinking about how many projects we have to get done while they’re going on about the varieties of grapes in Sonoma. Giving someone your undivided attention in a conversation isn’t easy, but it is a skill we can practice and hone and, if we do, we can cultivate more meaningful relationships along the way.

Mindful Listening

“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Of all our communication skills, listening is one of the most important ones—and is often the most neglected.  We all know what listening is, but have we ever considered what it really means and takes to mindfully listen? As we’ve seen in many previous posts, mindfulness is simply defined as awareness;  It is the practice of paying attention and embracing the present moment. Mindful listening, then, is about being fully present when interacting with others rather than thinking about your to-do list, what you’re going to do over the weekend or replying to emails while you’re on the phone with your mom. 

Instead of just going on auto pilot and giving into distraction, mindful listening requires us to understand what the other person is actually saying. Often a person tells us something and before they even finish their thought we’ve made assumptions about it and filed it away, disregarding any attention to detail. However, if we’re able to truly pay attention to them in the present moment, we will be able to connect with them in a deeper, more meaningful way. 

“Many situations simply need an ear, not action. Oftentimes, problems don’t need solutions — they need presence and time.” 

Gabrielle Thompson, Senior Vice President at Cisco

Additionally, mindful listening involves not only paying attention to what another person is saying, but also to what that person is trying to communicate beyond words. Psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication, reframes mindful listening as “receiving empathically.” Receiving empathically requires us to really hear what others are observing, feeling, needing, and requesting. He defines empathy as “emptying our mind and listening with our whole being.” Emptying our minds to fully be present with someone else while they are talking to us can be even harder than it sounds, and that’s exactly why we encourage you to practice present moment breathing meditations! Rosenberg admits that “the presence that empathy requires is not easy to maintain.” Instead of maintaining presence our mind tends to wander, we offer advice, or explain our own perceptions of the matter at hand. Mindful listening, or receiving with empathy, requires we give others the space to share without interrupting, advising, or correcting them, while simultaneously bringing openness and curiosity to the interaction.

How to Practice Mindful Listening

“Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet.”

Krista Tippett

So how can we practice mindful listening and become more present, compassionate and connected listeners? Like in meditation, the first step in cultivating mindful listening is to set the intention of being a better listener so that you can keep gently reminding yourself to return to that intention when your mind starts to wander during a conversation.  Once you recognize that your thoughts are drifting away, take a breath, smile, and return back to mindful listening.  And just like with our breathing meditations, noticing and returning to the present moment is the ultimate goal. 

Here are a few more tips to re-tune your ears for mindful listening from Sound Expert, Julian Treasure:

Julian Treasure’s 5 Ways to Listen Better

  • Silence for 3 minutes a day:  Reset your ears with at least 3 minutes of silence a day- this could involve a presence breathing meditation. 
  • “The Mixer”: Even if you’re in a loud environment – whether a crowded room or out in nature – listen to how many individual sounds you can hear; this will improve the quality of your listening.
  • Savoring: Spend time enjoying mundane sounds, like a washing machine, lawnmower, coffee grinder, or the cars driving down your street. Pay attention to the undertones and subtle qualities of everyday noises.
  • Listening Positions. Apply various filters to your listening – like active, passive, reductive, expansive, critical, empathetic – depending on the situation.
  • In conversations, follow the acronym, RASA, which is the Sanskrit word for “juice” or “essence”:
    1. Receive: Pay attention to the speaker
    2. Appreciate: Making small noises like “mmm” or “oh” to empathize. You need to let them know you are paying attention and thinking about what they shared. You do this by showing interest and support through maintaining eye contact, nodding, smiling, and encouraging them to express their thoughts. In a sense, we become emotionally involved in their message and it shows.
    3. Summarize: Reflect back on what you heard-the word ’so’ is very important in conversation
    4. Ask: Ask open-ended questions and show curiosity after they finish speaking

    For more from Julian Treasure, check out his full TED Talk, 5 Ways to Listen Better

    In closing, the gift of listening can spread not only to people within your close circles, but can reach out to people who may need it the most. Imagine if you took the time to truly, mindfully listen to a random person who strikes up a conversation with you on the street. Do you think you’ll feel more connected and learn something new? I’m sure you will, and you will give that person a warm embrace of empathy and softness that they may need and crave. Spread the love of listening!

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