The Skill of Mindful Listening
Communication in the 21st century has some unique challenges, and some basic etiquette reminders may prove useful to facilitate effective communication. One may feel invalidated, ignored, or disrespected when attempting to talk with someone and competing for attention with their phone or tablet.
Multitasking when seeking authentic and constructive communication is an obstacle, which blocks opportunities for reciprocal flow and quality interaction. Many of us deeply appreciate when someone isn’t constantly checking their phone or texting when we are sharing a meal, taking a walk, or engaging in conversation.
Mindfulness practice includes attending to the moment with awareness, with a spirit of receptivity and non-judging. Optimal engagement cannot be realized when in constant interaction with devices. Back to basics in the realm of in-person communication includes “digital detachment” and being fully present. Nonverbal communication such as facial expression and body language are part of the total communication process, and important cues and information may be missed if full attention is not engaged.
I believe that one of the main reasons that psychotherapy and coaching remain attractive to people is that they are assured of having an in-person, focused, engaged listener for a prescribed amount of time. As I continue to evolve in my career, I have come to appreciate the nuances of listening in new ways. Listening is a mind-body skill, one that engages all the senses and provides information about other people and their history, moods, states of mind, desires, challenges, intentions, needs and dreams.
Before jumping to judgment about another person’s negativity, listening may provide an inroad to understanding what motivates them, what they are afraid of, and how they may feel invisible or invalidated. When we are truly mindful we are patient and nonreactive, fully observing, accepting of what is happening, and acknowledging it.
Effective communication begins with the core skill of listening. Mindful listening includes focusing on what the other person is saying, as well as their facial expression, gestures, and the volume and tone of their voice. Awareness and observation are the first steps in refining your listening skills.
It is natural to be thinking about what you want to say next while someone else is still talking. When you notice that you are doing this, slow down, breathe, and gently redirect your thoughts back to what the speaker is saying. Listen carefully with a receptive attitude.
We have all interrupted someone when they are speaking. If you catch yourself doing this, simply apologize and enter back into listening mode.
Another pitfall to avoid is finishing someone else’s sentences for them. Even if you know the person extremely well, intentional listening means allowing the other person the space to express their complete idea, without interjection or interruption.
An argument includes mutual interruption and interjection. Being mindful of a tendency to interrupt, or being impatient to the point of finishing other people’s sentences or train of thought, is an exercise in increasing our awareness. Once we are aware of it, we are able to redirect that energy into intentional listening. This is an initial step not only towards being a full participant in the process of listening, but also a potential technique to avoiding escalation and destructive fighting. Feeling invalidated, disrespected, and not heard may be a huge emotional trigger for people and may initiate a downward spiral toward conflict.
Cultivating empathy when listening provides an excellent opportunity to be other-focused, rather than self-focused. Mindful listening also includes responses to the speaker that confirm and acknowledge that you have heard what they are saying, and are seeking to clarify what you did not understand. This can be especially challenging if we disagree with what the speaker is saying and an emotional response is triggered in us. Listening includes discipline and restraint, getting out of our own way in order to respond instead of pure automatic reacting.
Body language is important — leaning forward, not crossing your arms or legs, facial expression, gestures that you make, the amount and intensity of eye contact and the amount of personal space that is appropriate to your respective cultures and social norms. It is helpful if your eyes are level in relation to one another, for example both parties sitting or standing, so your gazes are on an equal plane.
Mindful listening does include both nonverbal and verbal responses, consisting of encouragement for the speaker to express themselves, expand upon what they are saying, and clarifying what they have said.
The FBI and several law enforcement agencies have incorporated active listening skills into their crisis negotiation skills training. Some skills in their curriculum include paraphrasing, summarizing, mirroring, and pausing before speaking.
Pausing before speaking is validating because it illustrates considering and digesting what the other person has said, a form of validation. It serves to slow down the process of communication, which can inject a sense of space and calm into a conversation that may be emotionally charged. Providing space for the speaker to talk and to pause is important, as someone may be collecting their thoughts and may not be finished speaking. Jumping right in when someone pauses may short-circuit the communication flow.
Mindful listening is the essence of receptivity — allowing another person to express themselves without interrupting, judging, refuting, or discounting. It truly sets the stage for effective communication, and is the gateway to understanding and connection. The spirit of nondefensiveness is essential — you may not agree with what is being said, but the attitude is one of attempting to understand and acknowledge another’s feelings and point of view.
This is the exercise of walking in another’s shoes, an effort to feel their life experience and process. It takes focus, practice, and a compassionate attitude toward the self and others as you cultivate your listening skills. Back to basics in the 21st century — in communication it all begins with mindful listening.
Cohn, K. H. (2005). Better Communication for Better Care: Mastering Physician-Administrator Collaboration. Health Administration Press.
Noesner, G. W. (1999). Negotiation concepts for commanders. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 68, 6-14.
Hennessey, F. (2014). The Skill of Mindful Listening. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 31, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-skill-of-mindful-listening/00020000