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How Listening Differently Drives Connection

Posted by Laurie J Cameron

When you are at work listening to someone in a conversation or meeting, how much of your attention is actually focused on what the other person is saying? Harvard researchers found that 47% of the time our mind is wandering – and that happens when we are with others too.

We are in an “attention economy” according to Accenture, the global management consulting firm and where I spent a good chunk of my career. With so much vying for our attention, and we get distracted and listen only partially as we speed through our day. Whether you are thinking of what is unchecked on your to-do list, or mulling over what the speaker said ten minutes ago, or feeling pulled by your vibrating phone, it is hard to listen deeply.

And it’s not only distraction that gets in the way. These days, with so many issues that divide us, you might perceive some threat in what the other person is saying. When we have strong feelings about topics such as the climate, healthcare, guns, education and immigration, or anything involving politics,  the topics and the people who raise them can trigger our “fight or flight” response. You may find your heart racing as your mind scrambles to find words to defend your position. Or you may just ignore the person and disengage.

Both challenges – distracted partial listening, and emotional responses to hot button topics – can leave you and the other party feeling defensive, dismissed, and not fully heard. We disconnect, and trust breaks down. This impacts our performance, our relationships and our well-being at work.

Whether you are having a difficult conversation, solving problems or building relationships, mindful listening can be transformative. Listening this way integrates attention, receptivity and compassion by encouraging us to:

  •     Look Deeper, to find the human being beneath the issue
  •     Listen Differently, showing you are receptive and willing to be changed by what you hear
  •     Wish Well, extending kindness and compassion towards the other

When we listen with compassion to the other person, recognizing and acknowledging our common humanity, we forge trusting and productive relationships.

As with mindfulness meditation, the key to mindful listening is to notice when your mind begins to wander, and then gently bring your focus back to the object of your attention – in this case, to the person in front of you.

Practice refraining from interrupting, adding your point of view, or sharing similar experiences. These interjections take away from the speaker’s message by making it about you. Instead of projecting your experience, listen with the intention only to hear with an open, receptive, nonjudgmental, and compassionate ear.

Mindful listening can be difficult even when you’re putting in conscious effort. Noisy, open office spaces with interruptions from co-workers, technology devices, and other distractions make it challenging to concentrate on a conversation. What’s happening in your head can be even more disruptive.

This is where mindful self-awareness comes in. Notice your impulses and habits during interactions with other people. Do you tend to interrupt or “help out” by finishing someone’s sentence? If the person you’re talking with is struggling, is your immediate reaction to say something funny to break the tension? If a silence makes you uncomfortable, do you find yourself speaking just to fill the void?  You also might be surprised by how your mental and emotional filters color what you hear. You can check this by sharing back what you are sensing and understanding about what the other person is communicating.

Recognizing these tendencies is a way to learn about yourself so you can be more fully present for someone else. As your self-awareness deepens, you begin to listen with greater care – not only to words, but also to the emotion and meaning that the speaker is expressing. You’ll learn more about what is happening in the other person’s life and feel more connected.

Our clients often report that they experience an unfamiliar sense of freedom when they start to listen mindfully. They notice that rather than feeling tense, forming their next thought, and waiting for a pause in the other person’s words, they’re free to truly hear and process what’s being said. Mindful listening is so fundamentally different from how we usually converse that we can feel it in our bodies as much as in our heads!

How to listen mindfully:

  1. Set an intention. When you’re in conversation, set your mind to being present, receptive, and ready to listen with compassion. Bring yourself into the moment with a few deep breaths and ask yourself: What is this person communicating beyond the words they use? What are they feeling?
  2. Just listen. When the other person is speaking, just be present. Let go of any agenda or points you want to make and try to be there quietly, but mentally active and alert. Use nonverbal signals like nodding or smiling to let the person know you’re tuned in.
  3. Notice distraction. When you realize that your mind has drifted, let go of the thoughts and return your attention to what the person is saying.
  4. Read your body signals. Tuning in to your own body can give you valuable information about your direct experience when listening. Is there tightness in your chest, uneasiness in your belly? Or do you feel a lightness and a sense of joy?
  5. Activate curiosity. When you get fairly good at listening mindfully without speaking, begin to experiment with offering brief verbal comments that express kindness, or ask questions to deepen understanding. The key is to keep the focus on the speaker, not to bend it around to yourself. You might try, “Oh, that sounds rough. What happened next?”

Listening mindfully with empathy and presence, without an agenda, is a gift to both people. In that space that you create, you can ultimately respond with greater wisdom and skill – but only when it’s your turn.

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