A Simple and Powerful Technique for Better Listening

Want to strengthen your listening skills? Here's a simple but powerful tool.

Posted Sep 21, 2018

You’d think that as a therapist, I’d be a pretty good listener. Sometimes I am. But too often I find myself not allowing enough silence, not giving clients enough time to gather their thoughts, sit with their feelings, simply be in the presence of a supportive witness. And it’s not just clients whom I deprive of this quiet space; when I respond too quickly with a question, a comment, or a reflection, I also deny myself the gift of time to sit with my own thoughts, feelings, and possible responses.

It’s not just in the therapy office. Like a lot of folks, I notice that in everyday conversations, I’m often quick to respond, sometimes “helping” someone finish a sentence (are they truly not capable of finding the words, if given a moment?), or starting to speak before another person has even finished what they were saying. Sometimes people don’t mind; other times, I see a slight tensing up, or closing down, or a flash of irritation.

Maybe it’s anxiety, this difficulty sitting with silence. Or maybe it’s just habit, years of responding quickly rather than allowing a small pause before speaking.

Diego Schtutman/Shutterstock
Source: Diego Schtutman/Shutterstock

Does any of this sound familiar to you? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably “yes." Most of us are great at talking, and great at responding, but perhaps a bit less great at allowing brief moments of silence during conversations. In fact, in group discussions, if you don’t jump in at the first millisecond between comments, it can seem like you’ll never get a word in edgewise . . . and so the conversation becomes a kind of competition for airtime. Still fun and engaging, but also kind of exhausting. And daunting for anyone on the shy or quiet side.

So I was intrigued some years ago when I discovered a jewel of a technique in the marvelous book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff . . . and It’s All Small Stuff by the late psychologist Richard Carlson. Carlson called it “Breathe before you speak,” and that’s exactly what it is.

Here's my version of the instructions: 

Before you respond in a conversation, take a breath. Not an enormous, loud, obvious breath that screams out “I am trying a new technique for better listening!” No, just a normal, simple, ordinary breath. That’s it. The whole technique, right there.

Simple, right?

Well, yes and no. I’ve assigned this technique to hundreds of students as a homework exercise, and they’re always amazed at just how difficult it turns out to be. We want to jump into the conversation, to respond quickly, to interrupt, to finish the other person’s sentence. And other people may even expect us to do so. So when we take this very small pause, create this tiny space of silence, it can create some anxiety, for ourselves and others. If the anxiety is too intense at first, try a smaller breath, or just an inhale. It will feel easier, and it’ll still make a difference.

And then the magic starts. In the therapy office, when I give clients the gift of a brief quiet space created by that single breath, they invariably sit with their experience and then continue talking. I wouldn’t have known they had more to say if I’d started speaking myself. The small bit of silence allows them to explore a bit more, to formulate their thoughts, to reflect further on what they are thinking or feeling. In our everyday lives, most of us are not used to having this moment of space to relax and think about what we really want to say, what we are feeling, and what we might — or might not — want to share. Therapy should be a place where we do enjoy that kind of space.

And something else often happens when I take that breath with clients: At least half the time, I reconsider what I was about to say, either saying nothing at all, or something different than I would have said without the breath. The gift of a moment’s reflection is a gift to myself as well.

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

In everyday conversation, I find I interrupt people a lot less often. In response, people seem more relaxed when we are talking, knowing they don’t need to rush their words and anticipate being cut off. Sometimes, of course, people get uncomfortable. They’re not sure what’s happening, something just feels different, and they start filling in every breath-long space I create. I am reminded then that a discomfort with silence is pretty widespread. When that happens, I shorten it to a half-breath, a gentle inhale, and the anxiety usually disappears.

So if you want to become a better listener, or a better conversationalist, have a go with this remarkably simple yet surprisingly difficult technique. Try taking a breath before you speak. The impact may surprise you.

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