Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone.
We all know when we’re being heard and when we’re not. Some of our colleagues pretend to listen, while some don’t even bother pretending.
Good listeners listen actively and can repeat back the words they hear, but great listeners listen attentively. They are the ones who develop a reputation for being able to hear the unspoken messages that often lurk behind other people’s words.
Attentive listening means attending to how your
listening habits directly impact your interactions.
When attentive listening becomes habitual, you might be surprised to discover that you’ve been overthinking some of your most frustrating communication problems. You are also likely to discover opportunities to address these attention-related challenges with customized attentional exercises.
This kind of listening is a skill that extends beyond the workplace. I dare you to start paying closer attention to the relationship between how you listen to work colleagues and how you listen to your friends and family members. I’ve even found that the way I listen to difficult people improves the way I communicate with my supporters.
Attentive listening leads to greater trust and engagement. It can be trained through practice, but we rarely exercise the skills required to really hear each other.
Here are some mindful awareness strategies, exercises, tips, and insights that use ordinary sensory perceptions to develop a greater capacity for attentive listening.
You don’t have to use these approaches all the time by any means, but when you do give them a spin, treat them like mini experiments. Try one for a few seconds. Try one for a minute or longer. Try one whenever you remember.
Listen to the sound of the speaker’s voice. Try to relax the impulse to understand, solve, or respond.
When your attention becomes primarily focused on your own thoughts, gently slide your awareness back out to the sounds of human speech.
Expect that you’ll have to continually steer your attention back to hearing the sounds around you instead of prioritizing the words and images playing out in your mind. Each time you refocus, you are strengthening your ability to concentrate.
Consistent practice will gradually improve your baseline ability to focus on whomever is speaking. Giving your full attention to others helps them feel heard.
Practice with radio programs, podcasts, audiobooks, lectures, sermons, interviews, political speeches, and music. Practice by listening to television programs with your eyes closed. Practice using content you find interesting and engaging. Practice using content you disagree with and with ideas you find frustrating or confusing.
Practice when the stakes are low. Listen to children, strangers, and indifferent retail clerks. Listen for punctuation. When you listen for commas and periods, it can help you relax the impulse to solve or understand. Listening to human speech in this way starts to resemble listening to music.
Listening and solving are separate modes of attention. Treat them like two different gears. Practice shifting back and forth intentionally between them. When you practice listening without fixing, even for short periods of time, you’ll find that you have to repeatedly steer your attention away from your thoughts and back to the sound of the speaker’s voice. Notice how the meaning still comes through when you relax the impulse to understand messages or to resolve problems.
Seeing Alive People
Study the speaker’s facial expressions and gestures as if you were an actor preparing to portray him or her in a play or movie. Each time you do this, try to notice details you haven’t noticed before. Try to become secretly curious and fascinated by the people you talk to.
Watch closely enough so that you feel prepared to repeat back what you saw instead of parroting back their message or problem. Practice suspending the impulse to resolve every conflict quickly and rationally. Let your subconscious mind untangle the connections between what you see and hear.
Watch television on mute. Try this with a series you like, a news program you don’t like, and commercials. Take a different route to work. Take a walk and try to gently restrict your attention to hearing sounds, seeing the world around you, and feeling your body move.
Look for visual clues that the speaker feels heard or guarded. Pay attention to their eyes, smiles, and hands. Notice how they use their bodies to support what they are saying.
Notice how much of the content still makes it through when you allocate your primary attentional resources on the visual experience. Notice how it is enhanced by nonverbal communication.
Literally Feeling Your Reactions
Try to bring some attention to your body periodically when you are listening. You can easily scan your face, shoulders, chest, and stomach without drawing attention to what you’re doing.
Try to do this without expectation or evaluation. See if you can detect any emotionality in the body.
Challenging conversations can be rich opportunities to experience the physicality of emotions. We tend to be so busy thinking our way out of awkward conversations, that we overlook the way emotions play out in the body and goad us into thinking instead of listening.
You can scan your body for emotional reactions to music, television programs, movies, and other activities that involve listening. Try to get acquainted with what it feels like in your body to live with unresolved problems. Even small ones.
Try to remember to notice where your attention goes after a challenging conversation. How does it impact subsequent conversations with others? Some people energize us. Others drain us. Where does your attention go in the body to detect or notice the difference?
Try to form an alliance against the breakdown of communication instead of against the person. When you feel defensive, see if you can find a way to communicate that you see yourself on the same side of the problem -- if this is true. Try to let unspoken messages behind a person’s words emerge naturally.
How can you really know if someone you’re listening to feels heard?
Paying closer attention to what makes you feel heard is one powerful way to explore this question. Asking people if they feel heard now and then is another. Ask questions that can help them figure out what they want and need from you as a listener.
Feeling heard leads to passing on the gift of attentive listening. It’s contagious. When attentive listening becomes a habit, it increases the chances of your own messages falling on receptive ears.
Because everyone needs to feel heard. Everyone. Including you.
Daron Larson loves working with people who have tried mindfulness but gave up convinced they’re unable to do it. By comparing mindfulness practice to physical fitness, he helps people revise their expectations, navigate common obstacles, and develop personalized approaches to fit their lives. He encourages people to exercise their natural capacities for focus, self-awareness, resilience, and compassion. Many of his students report decreased distraction, anxiety, and insomnia as a result of exploring the exercises he practices and shares. In addition to personal attention training with individuals, Daron has also worked with groups of business leaders, cancer survivors, medical care givers, and prison inmates -- all of whom continue to teach and inspire him in return. www.athomeinyourlife.com