Mindful Listening: What It Is & How to Do It

The scene is classic.

She is happily blabbering about her last piece of news – whether it was her last management meeting or an interesting piece she read earlier that day.

At first, he seems to be paying attention. Then, slowly, his eyes wander to the corner of the room, and become vacant. His body language is clear: his mind is no longer there.

If you have experienced anything similar, you probably understand how feeling unheard can leave us baffled, and sometimes offended. Despite our best efforts to not take it personally, it can be disheartening to notice that our loved ones are not truly listening to our contributions.

Breaking that cycle through the practice of mindful listening is a healthy way to improve relationships. Here is how to do it.

1. Be fully there: mind, heart and ears.

External distractions, such as a phone buzzing with text messages or the background noise of a TV, can impede mindful listening.

Do your part by keeping these away when you’re having meaningful conversations with your loved ones. Turning away from the screen and towards someone is a beautiful way to show them your appreciation.

You must be wondering: how do I switch off my own monkey mind, when I have 27 thoughts crossing it, from bills to what’s for dinner? Just being aware of these ideas can help. Give them a spare second, and gently tell them to “hang on.”

I do that by jotting down any crucial thoughts that need my attention. Thoughts really enjoy being acknowledged. Once you do it, they will patiently wait for their turn.

2. What is not being said?

A person’s choice of words, tone, and volume offer insights you wouldn’t imagine.

When a family member says, “I took the trash out three times this week!”, what they might be really trying to say is that they feel underappreciated, or they might need you to step up your game with your share of the house chores.

By mindfully listening to their claims, we may realize that all they wanted was a big “thank you”, and a bit more help.

We all have friends and family members who rant and ramble, sometimes without getting to the point. By being mindful of the emotions behind their words, we can tap into – but not assume – their feelings and ask further questions to clarify what they were trying to say.

Next time you are practicing mindful listening, try asking follow-up questions in the lines of, “It sounds like you are frustrated / upset / confused,” and see what happens.

The beauty of being a good listener is that sometimes we end up helping people just by offering them our full attention, being a sounding board to their own thoughts, thus helping them realize things they wouldn’t have otherwise.

3. Acknowledge your own feelings.

Communication breaks down when mindful listening becomes defensive listening.

Suddenly, we are more worried about defending ourselves from perceived threats and accusations than we are to focus on listening to understand, to empathize, and to socialize.

Defensiveness can show up in any context, such as in conversations about politics, where one party is better than the other, to romantic relationships, to your boss’ performance review.

One way to put yourself back on track of mindful listening is to acknowledge your own feelings and set them aside, so you can keep yourself neutral in the ongoing exchange. Telling yourself, “I am feeling defensive because I didn’t like the way he/she said that,” can be pretty cathartic.

You may decide to address that further down in the conversation, but remember your purpose of mindful listening first, before your address and share your own feelings.

When you do so, try using frameworks such as “When you say … I feel …”, which helps you hold yourself accountable for your own emotions and avoids placing blame.

4. Don’t rush.

According to research, the human brain is capable of understanding speech up to 600 words per minute. But the average speaker can produce between 100 and 150 words.

What happens to the extra room for another 350 words in our brains? It gets filled with thoughts and that strong desire to “finish the person’s sentence” or even jump to conclusions about what is being said.

Experts in communication advise us to use that extra space – the difference between what your brain can absorb and what you are actually hearing – to be mindful of the message, intention, opinion, tone, emotion and anything related to what is being said.

In the end of the day, being mindful when listening to peers and loved ones is all about being there. How about you? What are your strategies to practice mindful listening?


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