Updated: Oct 11
How often have you had a conversation with someone, and thought you were paying attention to him or her, only to realize shortly afterward that you can't remember what he said? Or, perhaps you got distracted while they were speaking and missed the message that they were trying to say. Have you ever had communication problems with a partner, colleague, teenager or total stranger? Mindful listening practices can help us notice our own habits with communication, remind us to see the big picture and help us improve our relationships.
In today's busy world, it can be hard to shut out distractions such as noise and devices, and our own thoughts or reactions can draw us away from a conversation. And, when life gets busy and the world gets heavy, it is difficult to stay mindful in our relationships. So, how can we listen more effectively? When we listen mindfully we can be aware of these barriers and still remain open to the speaker's ideas and messages.
Furthermore, if we're having difficulty speaking up, or creating healthy boundaries with our speech, or if we are noticing communication troubles in a relationship, mindful listening practices are an opportunity to pause, notice, and take inventory of our listening skills and make changes if we need.
What Is Mindful Listening?
Mindfulness is very simply paying attention to the present moment. Mindful listening encourages us to let go of distractions and our physical and emotional reactions to what people say to us. When we're not mindful, we can be distracted by our own thoughts and worries, and fail to see and hear what other people are saying. We also fail to listen to potential healthy and sound solutions that come from heart-based listening rather than incessant mind chatter.
The goal of mindful listening is to silence the internal noise of our own thoughts so that we can hear the whole message, and so that the speaker feels understood.
Here is a mindful listening practice from the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy program I took years ago. I often teach it at my retreats:
1) Partner up with a friend or loved one.
2) Set a timer for 3 minutes.
3) Partner "A" can speak about anything they feel comfortable sharing for 3 whole minutes. This can be about something light like your favorite activities or hobbies. Or, if you feel comfortable, this can me an opportunity to, what I like to call, "empty your bucket" (empty your heart). It's always good to confirm with your listener, partner "B", if they are able to hold space for the contents of your bucket, if your bucket is heavy.
4) Partner "B" simply needs to listen, whole-heartedly. Partner B can notice what it feels like to simply listen. Maybe we notice the mind wanting to interject, move the conversation along or offer advice. This is normal, but with this practice, we only want to listen. I believe it was the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, who said, "You have two ears and one mouth for a reason." 😊
When someone comes to you to empty their bucket often they don't need our solutions, what they simply need comes more from the heart and not the head (mind energy). They mainly just need to be seen and heard.
5) Exchange with your partner your experience then change roles.
When I teach mindful listening practices at my retreats, I like to make two distinctions to the mindful listener with regards to our speech.
"What is helpful?" and "What is healing?" We might notice as the listener when someone empties their bucket, we find ourselves thinking of ideas, solutions, those "you should try X..." "maybe change your job" "try eating more fiber" 😊 type of responses. Which are sometimes helpful (again, mind energy). But, what is healing? (heart energy). Healing is letting the person empty their hearts with the gaze or response, "I hear you." "That sounds difficult." "I understand."
When we allow the person to empty their bucket without adding our solutions and ideas and simply give them the space to hear their own voice, very often, the solutions arise from within them. There is so much wisdom in our own hearts and sometimes being a mindful listener can help the "speaker" find their own solution by tapping into their own heart's wisdom, simply by being heard.
Practicing this at home, or with a friend, or join me for a retreat. Even in your yoga practice, while you listen to your body for the full hour of class, you are strengthening your listening skills. Not only does this lead to a healthier body, but mindful listening helps us to fortify and heal our relationships. Over time, you will notice your communication skills improve and as a result, your relationships will strengthen.