So many claim to be great listeners, but fail to actually listen to what’s being said, instead thinking of what they want to say next. Although we all fall victim to this at some point, there are a myriad of ways to practice a new kind of listening that’s more mindful of the other person and of ourselves.
This how-to guide is intended to help you to be more present around others and ultimately have better conversations.
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We often fail to see that we can refine the quality of our conversations by simply paying attention. What we lack is mindful listening. When it comes to the puzzle of communication, listening plays a vital part. We talk while others listen to us and we listen when other people talk. But are we truly listening?
Aren’t we all guilty of times when we zone out or are unable to pay attention? Incorporating mindful listening is slightly more complicated than we might assume. You may wonder, isn’t all listening, mindful listening? The simple answer is no. For a slightly longer answer, you may want to read along.
What is Mindful Listening?
It’s a process of listening to other people without judging, criticizing or interrupting, while also being conscious of the thoughts & responses that may obstruct others from speaking successfully with you. Mindful listening is when you are fully present throughout the conversation, and by doing so you are absorbing the speaker’s entire message.
American professor emeritus of medicine and mindfulness teacher, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as “paying close attention in a specific way, with intent, while staying in the present, and that nonjudgmentally.”
Mindfulness in general teaches us to be fully aware, and present while letting go of distractions as well as our physiological and emotional responses to what others say to us. Because when we fail to be mindful, our inner feelings and anxieties can distract us, and in the case of communication, from seeing and hearing what the other individuals are trying to convey.
According to communication expert Rebecca Shafir, an average individual can retain just 25 percent of what someone has said after a few minutes have passed. And the purpose of attentive listening is to block out our internal chatter so that we might absorb the entire message and so the other person may feel understood.
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A More Scientific Reasoning
Let’s not entirely blame ourselves. According to academic research, our brains are not all that good at multitasking. The majority of us struggle with focusing and maintaining our attention. And so it’s important to understand that our brain is hardwired to be constantly drawn to things like sports bloopers, fears, celebrity gossip, or worries and concerns that are out of our control. (It’s okay, brain, you are trying your best).
Contrary to popular belief, we cannot effectively focus on several tasks at the same time.
So, without judgment, when you are sorting through email replies in your head while someone is talking to you, it’s nearly impossible for you to assimilate both your emails and fully absorb what the other person is saying. This is simply not the way the human brain works.
The human brain likes to focus on one thing at a time. Meme culture and doomscrolling on social media have certainly impacted our attention span and focus (don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a good meme).
However, researchers say that it’s very possible to develop your (mindful) listening skills. Think of it as a muscle. You can work on it, exercise it and it keeps getting stronger. All you need is consistency and lots of practice.
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Why is Mindful Listening so Important?
Mindful listening helps make other people feel heard and valued. By being fully present throughout the conversation, you are absorbing the speaker’s entire message. Mindful listening helps make other people feel heard and valued.
You may also learn to regulate your reactions and to recognize other distractions that hinder your comprehension, by being present.
It will also help you to cultivate empathy (more on this later) and pay attention to your impulses. This will allow you to stay open and receptive to other people’s ideas.
We understand how difficult it is to block off the noise and break away from the hypnotic effect of electrical devices within today’s always-on ethos. Our thoughts or feelings might distract us, while also preventing us from having a meaningful conversation with our loved ones (this will most certainly make them feel valued as they should).
So, can we improve our listening skills? Here are a variety of helpful mindful listening techniques and exercises that you can practice to equip yourself with this valuable skill. We are not going to say that it’s easy because it’s not. But is it worth it? Hell yes!
How to Practice Mindful Listening (5 Prereqs)
Before diving into the actual mindful listening exercises, these 5 prerequisites might make this journey easier. As we said before, this is a process and it’s not an easy one but it’s worth it in the end.
It’s important to remember that the learning doesn’t happen overnight; you certainly won’t wake up one day as a master communicator (though it’d be nice).
It takes practice and patience, with the potential to bring a massive positive change in your life, both personally and professionally. So let’s go!
1. Set Clear Intentions
To become a good listener, you must first define a clear goal. Take some deep breaths, relax your body as you observe, and if your attention diverts, redirect your attention back to mindful listening when you catch yourself wandering inside your musings when someone is speaking to you. It is very similar to meditating and reconnecting with your breath.
2. Take a Meditative Approach
Start by making a firm commitment to becoming a good listener. You’ll have a point of reference for monitoring yourself this way, and you’ll be able to spot yourself getting stuck inside your head while someone is speaking to you. While listening to the other person, let your own thoughts go in one ear and out the other. Don’t plan in advance what you want to say. Listen first, respond later.
3. Seek to Understand
Actually be intent on listening to what someone is trying to say without passing judgment or formulating your response in advance. Take it all in, really listen and seek to understand, and respond accordingly.
4. Embrace Pauses or Lulls in Conversation
Don’t be afraid of pauses or lulls in conversation. It shows that you are being thoughtful and not trying to predict what it is the other person is trying to say.
5. Mentally Prepare Yourself For the Long Haul
It’s a process and something that requires practice so you need to prepare yourself and make a long-term commitment. You might have to put in conscious effort in the beginning, however, we assure you that it will sooner or later become a habit and a part of who you are and will inspire a positive change in your life.
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9 Mindful Listening Exercises to Incorporate into Your Daily Life
And now here are a myriad of practical exercises that you can incorporate into your daily life.
1. Merge Meditation Practice with Listening
We briefly touched on this before. Take a moment, smile because you observed, and return to sincere listening once you’ve recognized what you are doing. It’s similar to meditating and returning to your breath. And, much like with yoga or meditation, the purpose is to notice and return to the present moment. Keep coming back because your thoughts will wander.
Just know it is okay if your thoughts wander. You will get better with time. Practice it at least once a day or whenever you remember. The more the better.
2. Practice Mindful Listening with H.E.A.R
HALT – Put down whatever you’re doing and give it your all.
ENJOY — Take a deep breath and decide if you want to receive what’s being conveyed to you.
ASK – Check to see whether you truly understand what they mean, and if you don’t, seek clarification. Bring openness and interest to the conversation instead of assuming things. You may be surprised by what you find.
REFLECT — Explain what you’ve heard. This demonstrates that you have been paying attention.
3. Practice Paraphrasing What You Heard
It is the best mindful listening exercise to strengthen those listening muscles. It works because when you know you have to paraphrase what the other person is saying to you, you automatically pay more attention. The more you practice, the quicker it’s hardwired into your brain.
This enables your talking loved ones to know that you’ve been paying attention as well as comprehending what they’re saying. In a conversation with a loved one, repeat what they said in your very own words and let them know that this is how you perceived it.
Inquire if that’s the intentional meaning. This will assist you and your partner to understand the message that was conveyed.
4. Just Sit Down, Halt Everything and LISTEN
This appears to be simple and it’s rather straightforward, but you must remember to focus while hearing so that your attention doesn’t stray to other things.
Allocate a fixed time each day to practice attentive listening, and adhere to it. It is okay even if it’s just for 5 minutes. Make sure that you are comfortable and you don’t feel rushed.
Allow whatever noises you notice to bring you back to the moment. Try to not pass any harsh judgments or attempt to analyze what is happening around you during this time. Acknowledge what you’re hearing and permit yourself to feel it. If you grow frustrated, take note of what’s going on and gradually shift your focus to the noises around you. Don’t react to the feelings that are making you restless.
5. Put Away Distractions
Remove any distractions, such as your smartphone or other electronic devices. There’s nothing more frustrating than attempting to be acknowledged while the folks you’re conversing with are immersed in their cell phones.
It gives the impression that their words are unimportant. While you’re devoting your complete attention towards another person,put anything that could distract you aside. This practice will help you pay attention in a better way, automatically improving your listening skills.
6. Employ the Alexander Technique
Most humans’ way of seeing and reacting to the environment has a physical manifestation. In many cases, that consists of either slouching or tightly keeping ourselves in “good posture.” In both cases, according to the Alexander Technique, we are obstructing our liberty as well as the life-giving flow of our human experience.
The Alexander Technique, named after developer Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869–1955), is a popular alternative therapy based on the idea that poor posture can give rise to health problems.
This technique trains us to become aware of ways we obstruct our happiness and freedom. Instead of doing more, it teaches us to let go of everything that is obstructing our progress.
An example of how this works is becoming aware of how you sit. Do you sit with one leg crossed? Instead, make a conscious effort to put both feet flat on the floor and position the torso over the pelvis.
In other words, the Alexander Technique makes you mindful of mundane habits and quirks, and focuses you on the present. This in turn can make you a better, more attentive listener.
My biggest hurdle is that my phone becomes too distracting even if I have it on vibrate. So the best mindful listening exercise that works for me is to either switch on airplane mode or put it away (out of sight, out of mind).
7. Pause Before Responding
Utilize this time to process what they’ve said without passing judgment, and then put what you’ve heard into your own words and return it to them.
It’s sometimes necessary to take a deep breath and clear your head to be able to respond without being judgmental. Formulate a correct response and ask yourself if it is an appropriate response.
Taking a little breather will help you respond in a better way rather than reacting impulsively.
This is especially helpful during arguments, uncomfortable situations, or talking to difficult people (say, your angry teenage kid or your fuming boss).
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8. Pay Attention to Their Demeanor
Pay attention to the facial expressions and tone of the other person. Mimic their demeanor to make them feel at ease in your company. Reply similarly. For example, if their tone of voice is cheerful and energetic, focus on matching it.
9. Listen to Music Mindfully
This is one of the techniques that helped a LOT with my focus. Making it a habit certainly reflected on how I communicate with people now and improved my active listening skills.
Look for music that you haven’t heard before, not a song that you know all the lyrics to. Then practice mindful listening on it.
If you feel adventurous you can try listening to podcasts or audiobooks (trust us, it takes a LOT of concentration). Here are the steps that you can follow.
Plug in your earphones and close your eyes.
Discard your first impressions of the tune. It might not be a genre that you normally listen to, it may even not be a style of music that you enjoy. However, keep your eyes shut and pay special attention to the music’s sound.
Let yourself take your time and listen to every track. It’s fine if you don’t enjoy the music initially; just let go of any distaste, allowing your attention to enter the song and flow with the music.
Listen to every dynamic of the instrument to learn more about the song. Separate and examine every one of the different sounds you are experiencing.
Pay particular attention to the vocals of the music, such as the range and intensities of the voice. If different vocalists are singing, differentiate the accents and their voice in general.
The goal is to listen closely to the music and different sounds, and become completely engrossed in the song’s composition, without passing judgment on the song’s genre or the lyrics. Listen without worrying about what genre you’re listening to or whether you like it or not.
7 Examples of What Not to Do
1. Interrupt Them While They’re Speaking
Allow the speaker to finish their statements. Don’t conclude their sentences for them. Choose to hear what your loved one is trying to convey, which can be quite different from what you’re expecting.
Allow the individual you’re conversing with a couple of moments to recollect their thoughts and ponder upon their ideas. Don’t rush them.
This practice will also encourage other people to do the same for you and it’ll only make the flow of the conversation better.
2. Mirror Their Body Language
Don’t do those techniques where you attempt to mirror someone’s body language or focus on trying to maintain eye contact, etc. Those tactics take up too much energy.
If you’re doing that, you’re thinking too much about appearing like you’re listening (I do this on dates a lot) when the key is to just actually listen intently on what is being said.
3. Try to Change Their Mind
Trying to change someone’s mind is not a good conversation. You don’t know who someone is deep down just by looking at their outer appearance.
We have these biases that may help us quickly make sense of the people and world around us, but this prejudgement is a detriment if we’re trying to have a civil discussion. This is why the right and the left in politics can’t ever get along. We’re judging the other side without actually knowing who they really are.
4. Leave Your Phone on the Table
Don’t leave your phone on the table in front of you, even if it’s face down. Put that phone away and turn off all notifications because when we hear them we think negatively about the other person.
When trying to be a more mindful listener and have actual meaningful conversations, just put the phone away, you don’t always need it on you.
5. Seek Validation from Others
Most people disliked high school because they were constantly thinking about how other people thought of them and how to be liked. It’s a popularity contest, nothing more.
And now with social media, we seek other people’s validation and we’re making ourselves miserable in the same way. We care too much what others are thinking of us. Just put the darn phone away.
6. Talk About Yourself Incessantly
We love talking about ourselves so much because when we do it, it activates the same area of as sex, heroin and chocolate. So stop talking so much about yourself. It’s a detriment especially at an interview or on a date where conversation is the only thing that matters.
7. Don’t Be Empathetic
If you want to have better conversations, just let other people talk. If you want someone else to feel good about themselves, let them talk and ask genuine questions to show your interest.
Practice mindful listening with every conversation you’re engaged in, even if it’s small talk with a stranger. Listen for clues as to what they’re thinking, how they feel and to better understand them. In other words, start practicing empathy.
How to Increase Empathy through Mindful Listening
In order to counteract bias we need to increase our empathy. If you can learn to shut up and just listen, listen to someone else tell their story even if you disagree, then you can increase your empathy.
Here are a handful of tips on how to be more empathetic:
Practice small talk more often (even if you hate it), especially with people who are paid to be nice. Baristas, clerks, waiters, etc. Just make small talk and it will make you feel better because it should be a nice interaction. Also, you have to have small talk in order to get to the deep and meaningful stuff. Small talk is a good thing.
Additionally, when you enter any conversation, go in with the goal of learning just one thing about the other person, that’s it. Simple enough right?
And finally, show respect to the other person, even if you dislike them or wholeheartedly disagree with them. Listen to them intently, ask good and simple questions, and try to end the conversation on a good note. It may be hard, but it’s how you can develop your empathy.
Mindful Listening Scenarios
Here are some situations along with mindful listening examples to give you a bit clearer insight on how to use mindful listening in your day-to-day communication with other people if you get into any of the following situations (trust me, we all do).
Scenario 1: A Heated Argument With a Partner
Imagine yourself in a heated argument with your partner, as painful as it may be, avoid your instinct to react. We all go down that emotional spiral and it can turn really ugly. Someone not practicing mindful listening will react, scream, jump to conclusions (been there, done that).
Someone who practices mindful listening will take a deep breath and take time to clear their head. They will communicate that with their partner and then will revisit it later (preferably on the same day). They will focus on what their partner is saying, and breathe. Paraphrase what they said back to them and ask if this is what they meant.
If you find yourself in a similar situation, pause before responding and ask yourself “what will be the consequence of what I am about to say?” and repeat.
Scenario 2: A Disagreement with a Boss
We’ve all been in situations where we don’t agree with the other person and it is especially hard when the other person is in the position of authority. A person who is a mindful listener will ask a lot of questions, try to understand and explore all aspects of where they are coming from and will present different solutions.
Scenario 3: You Keep Zoning Out When a Friend is Talking to You
We all are guilty of this one. The biggest challenge for me is to control distractions. It doesn’t have a quick fix. For example, I started listening to music mindfully and it did help with my overall focus. While I still zone out (and that is okay), this mindful listening exercise helped me immensely. I zone out way less than I used to. As for the distractions, I just keep my phone out of sight.
Books & Resources to Become a Better Listener
- Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
- How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships by Leil Lowndes
- How to Talk to Anyone About Anything: Improve Your Social Skills, Master Small Talk, Connect Effortlessly, and Make Real Friends by James W Williams
- How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie
- How to Be a Better Listener by The New York Times
Now that we understand what exactly mindful listening entails, put it into your day-to-day practice until it becomes second nature to you. It is hard in the beginning but it will become a part of you eventually.
Listen to people, be aware of your behaviors, make yourself flexible enough to consider other people’s point-of-view, and practice mindfulness in your daily life. It is not easy, but I am certain that mindful listening will inspire a positive change in your life.
How will you go about practicing mindful listening today?
Let’s continue the discussion over in the Gentlemen Within Private Facebook Community.
Looking forward to seeing you in there.
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