When we communicate mindfully, our goal is to create a deeper connection to another person. Skillful, active listening makes this possible. Poor listening leads to garbled messages and disconnection. To know another person, we must listen to and understand what they say. Yet some research shows that we retain as little as 25% of what people say to us. No wonder we struggle for understanding!
Too often, “communication” is confused with “speech.” President Ronald Reagan was called “The Great Communicator.” But President Reagan was “The Great Persuasive Speaker.” He was not communicating, because he did not have the opportunity to listen to everyone in America.
Bad Listening=Communication Breakdown
When listening is ineffective, communication breaks down. The conversation can become two dueling monologues, parallel to each other. No understanding or connection is produced between the competing speakers. Both may become frustrated or angry. They may complain that “She doesn’t understand me,” or “He doesn’t listen to me.” This is true, but those complaining have not listened or understood, either.
It is not easy to improve our listening skills, but we must do so if we want to relate well to other people. We learned our listening skills in early childhood, and they are now habits. For most of us, these habits are not good. And like any habit, they are difficult to change without conscious effort.
This is why listening mindfully can be so helpful. The mindful awareness of our own limitations as listeners is a good place to start. We must accept that our skills need improvement if we are to achieve real connection with others.
A mindful listening practice requires that we Be Present, that we focus our attention entirely on what the other person is saying. In mindful meditation, we return to the breath when our thoughts wander. In mindful listening, we return to the other person, and what he or she is saying. Our purpose is to correctly hear and understand the speaker’s complete message, undistracted by our own reactive thoughts.
Listening is Active, Not Passive
This requires a shift from passive hearing to active listening. When we focus on the other person, it is not enough to simply hear every word. When we listen, we add the effort to understand the speaker’s intent. We want to know the person’s feelings and viewpoint. This requires Empathy, the willingness to see and feel things from someone else’s perspective.
We may hear and respond to messages that are different from the speaker’s intent, or even the stated words. Our minds generate all sorts of reactive thoughts that may be profoundly misguided. Again, we must apply mindful Awareness to the prejudices and opinions we bring to the conversation. Are we reacting to what the speaker is trying to say, or are we reacting to our own past belief? It is critical that we separate what the other person says from what our reactive mind hears.
Benefits of Mindful Listening
Mindful listening can have a transformative effect on relationships of all kinds. When we listen actively, the speaker is encouraged to speak more openly and frankly. We achieve improved understanding when we listen more carefully to what is being said. This builds trust, because people feel listened to, appreciated, and understood. This trust, in turn, helps to bring people closer and build more positive, satisfying relationships.
There are personal benefits to the active listener, as well. The mindful focus lengthens your attention span, and helps you to retain information. The information you remember is more likely to be complete and accurate. Having accurate information is good for your productivity and your ability to persuade and lead others. All that is good for your self-esteem.
How to Listen Mindfully
Let’s take a look at how to listen actively and effectively.
- Pay attention: Your mindful awareness and appreciation of the other person is essential here. This can be difficult if we associate this person with conflict, or we dislike them for some reason. We remain aware of negative past interactions, and resolve to put them aside. We hope to communicate with this person in a new way.
It is also essential to put aside distraction. This is not only the obvious external distractions: noise, phone, TV, radio, and laptops. It is even more important to avoid internal distractions: preparing a response while the other person is speaking, boredom or loss of interest, dislike of the other person, and any other mental event other than working to understand the speaker.
- Show that you are listening: Do not attempt to fake this! Yes, there are routine behaviors that could simulate attention, but we all know when we’re watching a show. Insincerity will be discovered, and will make things much, much worse.
So, with your heart in it, use attentive body language. Maintain eye contact, but in a gentle relaxed way, not boring into the other person’s skull. Keep your posture relaxed and straight, but inclined forward a bit. This implies connection, rather than rejection. Your facial expression should be relaxed and open.
Relaxing your face will help keep your triggers under control, and help keep you from being blown about by your feelings. This will allow you to be more accepting and less judgmental of the other person’s statements.
Encourage the Speaker
- Provide non-verbal encouragement: It is important to encourage the other person to express him or herself as fully as possible. We want to hear the full expression of their thoughts. Nodding shows that you are alert and listening, without necessarily implying agreement. Affirmative sounds, such as yes, uh-huh, and I see, also suggest that you would like the other person to continue.
- Allow periods of silence: Good teachers know that the way to get a good answer is to wait for it. Simply wait for the other person to speak again. They will add to, and flesh out, what they said before. Do not use the time to think of similar experiences or responses. Give the other person space within your safe listening zone to develop a complete description of their view.
- Check for Understanding: This step is critical. You must make sure that you have correctly understood not only the speaker’s words, but the intent and meaning behind them. This may take several attempts. First, try repetition, simply returning the speaker’s own words. Often, hearing them in this way, the speaker will rephrase the statement to adjust its meaning. Follow up with paraphrasing, putting what you believe to be the speaker’s idea into your own words. This, too, may require adjustment.
- Understand the emotions behind the words: Keep working patiently until the speaker is convinced that you understand the intent and emotion behind the words. Do NOT attempt to respond until this is completed. As a mindful listener, you may need to elicit the beliefs that cause an emotional reaction in the speaker.
Prepare to Respond
- Defer or suspend judgement: Stick to the agreed understanding of what the speaker has said. Do not try to determine if the statements are good or bad, right or wrong, offensive or inoffensive. Look at what has actually been said, and the intent and emotion behind it. You may not agree with the statement, but do not assume that this means that your point of view is “better” than the speaker’s.
- Respond appropriately: How to respond mindfully is a subject for another article. But do maintain the equanimity that has characterized your listening. Do not start arguing, or denying, what the other person said. Examine the beliefs behind it, and search for the truth value of it. If you disagree, be careful to disagree with the information or values expressed, not the peron who expressed them.
Five Stages of Listening
If we follow these steps correctly and well, we will enter the five stages listening process described by author Joseph DeVito: receiving, understanding, remembering, evaluating, and responding.
Receiving occurs when we focus on hearing a speaker’s message, as described in Steps 1-4 above. We eliminate distractions, and return our focus again and again to the speaker. We hear the words spoken, and check that we have heard them correctly.
During Understanding, (steps 5 and 6) we try to find out what the speaker really means to say. It is important to let this process unfold at its own pace. That way, we can avoid the mistake of filling in anything that we don’t understand with our own opinions. We must maintain awareness that we are not in perfect agreement with the speaker, and should look carefully for points of difference.
While checking for understanding, we may find that we do not Remember what was said in the same way as the speaker. Remembering correctly requires both speaker and listener to maintain mindful awareness of the spoken words. Accurate remembering evolves out of the process of understanding. If we did not understand something correctly, we will not remember what was said, but our own incorrect understanding.
Mindful Awareness, Mindful Response
Evaluating, means judging the value of the message, which we are told to avoid in step 7. However, we must maintain an awareness of how our past experience, education, and training affect how we perceive the message. Our perception is not the only reasonable interpretation. Our personal opinions can affect evaluation, and produce judgements, almost without our awareness. Mindful awareness of what we bring to the message is essential to avoid judging it incorrectly.
Responding (Step 8) is the stage at which you let the other person know your thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the original statement. The initial focus should be on what your final understanding is of the speaker’s ideas. It should show an appropriate respect for the thoughts and feelings that drive those ideas. However, assertive disagreement can be an appropriate response. In mindful communication, we are working to let the other person know who we really are. This should not be disguised behind false, “smooth it over” agreement. In an authentic relationship, the goal is not for one person to become like the other. It is for both people to become the truest version of themselves, enjoying both similarities and differences.
The only way we can known another person is through effective communication. This process starts with effective, mindful listening. If you wish to know another person better, you will have to listen to them. Initiate conversation with a meaningful question, a question that you really want to know the answer to. And then allow yourself the luxury of simply listening to the other person give full expression to the answer. Maintaining an objective awareness of the answer and your reactions to it will fill the moments of your conversations as never before.