Do you know that awkward moment when someone is speaking to you and you’re smiling and nodding and kind of following the thread but really thinking about what you are going to say next or even something else entirely?
This is an example of unmindful listening, where the body is in one place, doing one thing, while the mind is somewhere else entirely. Listening in this way tends to reduce performance, increase stress and cause a range of other problems. It can also impair communication, damage relationships and even get us into trouble.
Once we learn to listen mindfully, for instance to the sounds around us, we can begin listening more attentively to others.
Our internal dialogue
When we start mindfully tuning in to environmental sounds we get to see how pervasive the default mode of listening is. We can start observing ourselves going between listening to the actual sounds and ‘listening’ to our internal monologue. We can notice the tendency of the mind to label and judge what we hear, and to seek out and fixate on certain sounds.
And as with any mindfulness practice, this awareness provides us with an opportunity to redirect our attention from our default-mode mental projections and reconnect with what is actually happening in each moment. We can start to learn about the ways our habits of unmindfulness impair our ability to listen and communicate.
Once we have had some practice listening mindfully, we can start bringing this to our communication. We can begin noticing the ways that we get caught up in ‘listening’ to the thoughts and judgments about what is being said or the person saying it, rather than paying attention to the actual words and non-verbal communication.
When we are listening on automatic pilot we have often formulated a response before the person has even finished speaking, or we judge what is being said, or wander off into thoughts only tangentially related (if at all) to the conversation.
Just as when we are practising mindfulness alone, the moment these habits are noticed we are no longer caught up in them, but have woken up to the fact that although we may not have been present we are the observer of the mental habit and not the habit itself. This begins, again, with bringing our full attention to what we can hear with our ears rather than our thoughts.
Breathe and be
We can also tune into the sensations of the body, and come back to these over and over whenever we find ourselves momentarily caught up in reacting or fixating on a particular part of the communication experience. From here, it is about applying effort to refocus our attention on the conversation.
This will require us at times to consciously release tension from our body and our mind, to take a moment to just breathe and be, without trying to achieve anything in particular. It is this stepping out of autopilot and dropping into awareness that makes real listening possible: it is actually far easier to relax into listening than it is to force our attention to fixate there.
If communicating mindfully, we can seek to hear more than just the words being said. We can tune in to the tone of the other person’s voice, their posture and other non-verbal components of the conversation.
Remember that 80 per cent of communication is non-verbal and very often we get a far better idea of what a person really means by their emotion and physical gestures rather than what they say. Words convey the content, while emotion is more directly expressed through prosody (rhythm, structure and intonation of speech), pauses, intensity, rate and vocal tone, as well as posture, facial expressions and even intuition.
Make a start
Start with focused listening — to meaning and emotion — and when this becomes comfortable, widen your attention to take in the whole conversation, including the overall direction and flow. Tune in to the overall pattern and as you do so, notice how this allows you to better tune in to whomever you’re interacting with.
At first it might seem strange because it is not our habitual way but it gets easier and more natural every time we practise it.
Of course, notice any reactions you have to what is being said, but simply note these in the same way that you have been noting reactions to bodily sensations, sounds and thoughts in the meditation practices. It may take some practice to accept or let go of these reactions, but if you have been practising even a little bit, you will know by now that it is possible.
Also start listening out for what is not being said. Just as we can listen to environmental sounds and the silent space between them, it is possible to start tuning in to what is being communicated both via words and silence. You have no doubt experienced moments with people where both of you sat in silence and yet communicated deeply, perhaps with your gaze or even just with your presence.
When we practise in this way, listening to others fully becomes a meditation practice itself. By bringing this awareness to listening, you can literally ‘listen’ the other person into awareness, providing a space for them to be truly heard, where they can authentically express themselves.
In fact, through doing this, we can make the transition from listening to actually hearing. This is a very useful distinction to make.
© Monash University 2017. CRICOS No. 00008C