We often think about improving our relationships by changing what we say to others. We pay less attention to the fact that we also can change what we hear. Listening is the other half of the communication equation. We speak while others listen, and we listen while others speak. Except for when we don’t listen… Listening mindfully is more complicated than you might think.
According to Dr. Joseph Dispenza, humans process only 2,000 of the 400 billion pieces of information that come into our brain per second. This means that we only process a tiny fraction of what we hear from others. This also means we have some control over what we focus on when listening to others.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention and being open to the present moment. Mindful listening then is about being fully present when interacting with others rather than thinking about your to-do list while your colleague is sharing about her weekend, thinking about what you’re going to eat for dinner while your partner tells you about his/her day, or sending emails while talking on the phone to your mother.
Listening is a socio-cognitive activity that is affected by our past experiences and our future expectations. When our brain is on auto-pilot, we listen more closely to people who have control over our future (e.g., our potential new boss at an interview) than those we will likely never encounter again. We also filter what we hear through what has been important to listen for in the past. In that same interview, we might focus on what our interviewer is telling us about flex time because we left our past job due to inflexibility of scheduling.
Awareness of the factors that influence what we listen for and who we listen to can empower us to change our listening habits. We can listen verbally, nonverbally, and relationally, using all five senses. We listen relationally by reading between the lines based on what we know about the relationship and our conversation partner from past experiences. When we do this, we can experience higher quality conversations with others. We can also build quality relationships with others and improve the relationships we are already in.
Listening mindfully requires us to comprehend what the other person is actually saying. Then we need to let them know we are paying attention and thinking about what they shared. We 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.
Psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication, recasts 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 sharing with us can be even harder than it sounds. 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. Listening mindfully, or receiving with empathy, requires we give others the space to share without interrupting, advising, or correcting them.
Asking strategic questions that help the speaker explore their feelings and experiences instead of asserting our own ideas and advice is a good way to keep the door open for listening. Try asking questions next time someone shares something meaningful with you instead of offering advice or talking about your own experiences with what s/he is going through.
Consider sharing your experiences with listening mindfully in the comments section below.
Pecchioni, L. L., & Halone, K. K. (2000). Relational listening II: Form & variation across social and personal relationships. International Journal of Listening, 14(1), 69-93.
Rosenberg, M.B. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships. Del Mar, CA: PuddleDancer Press.