First of All, Listen
Mindful, empathic listening is one of the greatest gifts we can offer one another. When we listen mindfully, we can transform dialogues to true connections. Establishing an authentic connection allows relationships to grow and thrive.
Many of us, however, prefer—or at least appear to prefer—speaking to listening. We have a point we want to get across, and that is our focus. What the other person has to say becomes less important than convincing him or her of our viewpoint. So, as the other speaks, we rehearse our responses. We may find ourselves becoming impatient for our “turn” to speak.
The result? Our partner in dialogue does not feel “heard.” This is one of the most common complaints I hear from workshop attendees. In unproductive conversations, one or both participants experience the frustration of feeling that the other is not really listening. And if we don’t feel heard, neither do we feel valued or respected. We lose our sense of connection with the other and feel isolated–even within a two-way dialogue. Communication breakdown begins here.
If you truly feel you have something important to communicate, first listen. Only by offering the other our full attention can we hope to foster a sense of collaboration and a mutual desire to reach common ground.
How to Listen Mindfully
Listening mindfully takes practice. But if you keep in mind the following steps, you’ll be well on your way to more skillful interactions with others. Before important conversations, you may want to review the steps below in order to keep a mindful approach uppermost in your mind.
- Stop doing anything else. Stop anything you’re doing that is not part of the conversation. Set everything down for just this moment. Nothing else needs to get done right now. If you forget and become busy again with something else while the other is speaking, simply stop again.
- Consciously form an intention to listen. Set your intention to pay full attention to the speaker. You may want to say your intention silently to yourself and repeat it as necessary.
- Listen with your full attention. Give the other center stage. Maintain eye contact. If that feels too intense at times, you can move your eyes down to the lips. Bring your full awareness to the meaning of his or her words and to the perspective you hear.If your mind begins to rehearse a response, remind yourself to do nothing but listen. You may have to do this over and over again; that’s normal. What’s important is that you try. Remember: you do not need to say anything quite yet. Just listen until the other has finished making his or her points.
- Focus on understanding (not on being understood). Make your primary motivation to understand the other. Don’t stop listening because you think you already “get” where he or she is coming from. The greater your desire to understand, the deeper your listening will be.
- Expand your awareness. As you’re focusing on the other’s words, also note facial expressions and body language. Oftentimes, the face and body tell more than the words alone. Also notice your own body sensations as you listen. Check in from time to time to gauge feelings you may not be consciously aware of. For example, tightness in your chest or jaw may indicate judgment or impatience. A heavy head may be a sign of fatigue or loss of interest in the conversation. Try a deep inhalation to increase your energy. You may also want to consciously soften any areas of tightness.
How to Speak Mindfully
- Step Into the pause. Eventually, the speaker will pause. While continuing to maintain eye contact, gently allow the pause to continue for a few seconds without needing to fill the space.
- Reiterate the other’s message. It is now your turn to speak. Begin by stating what you heard the other said to you. I like to give a bullet-point summary of what I believe I heard, then ask if that is what he or she meant.
- Listen closely to the response. Sometimes what I thought I heard is not necessarily the point the other was trying to convey. I may have misheard or misunderstood. Therefore, listen closely to the other’s response if he or she attempts to clarify.
- Update your bullet-point summary. Again tell the other what you have heard and how it may have been clarified.
- Bring compassion. Keep uppermost in your mind your intention to collaborate rather than convince. Express your understanding and compassion for the other’s viewpoint. A compassionate response may often simply be silence, a head nod, or just a few words. If you recognize that the other is upset, convey empathy and compassion for the pain he or she is experiencing. If, on the other hand, your conversational partner is excited or happy, try to share in his or her joy.
A compassionate, mindful response may seem a tall order if your own emotions are running high. But by beginning with mindful listening, you set the stage for a more easeful, compassionate response. Your full, mindful attention not only allows the other to feel heard and respected, it also brings your own mind more easily to a place of compassion and connection.
The Power of Compassionate Communication
Here is a personal experience of the power that mindfulness can bring to bear on communication. I do volunteer work for hospice. There was a gentleman I visited who was initially quite fearful of his impending death.
As I sat with him, week after week, I gave him my full attention as he recounted to me his life story and his current fears. I mostly just listened. I didn’t try to give advice or tell him not to worry.
The day I saw him for our last visit, he thanked me for listening to him. He told me that my listening and bearing witness to his process helped him get over his fear of death. He said he was felt ready to go. He died a few hours after my visit that day.
So listen more. Talk less. Listen as if the other person’s life depends on it. You will be amazed at the depth of the connection you forge with others.