Listening is a rare superpower.
This was said to me by a meditation teacher halfway through a ten-day silent retreat. Listening to someone else, giving them your attention is a great act of love and respect. Listening to yourself is just as important.
Yet it can be a radical concept for many. We believe that we are good listeners, but most of us could use some practice. My relationship to listening and feeling heard has been the most profound lesson from my mindfulness practice and career in coaching.
Why is listening hard?
Through the work I’ve done both on myself and with others, these are common reasons, that I have discovered.
At times, we have:
- Fear of being wrong.
- An inability to be present.
- An urge to impress.
- An urge to be right / feel superior.
- A desire for validation.
- A lack of curiosity.
Only this week, I was talking to someone, and I could see them formulate an answer before I had finished. They interrupted me, clarifying something that wasn’t mentioned, and asked questions that had no relevance to what I was talking about. At the end, I felt frustrated, they hadn’t listened to me, they gave me advice when I hadn’t looked for it, and they did this because they felt that is what they had to do.
On the other hand, I had a conversation with someone and came away feeling lighter. This person simply showed up in the space and listened to me, non-judgementally. They fed back what they interpreted and sought to understand. We spoke back and forth, and a resolution came quite easily. It took time and it was worth it.
If you consider yourself quite good already, listening like anything else, gets better with practice. No matter how good you are, you can always get better.
Where do we go from here?
This is what has worked for me.
Practice being present and train yourself to tune into what is not being said.
How can we be more present? Meditation practice, for me, is key. A practice gives you the space, within yourself, to be here, non-judgementally.
Great listening is also about non-judgemental observation, tuning into the details of what is not being said.
How can I practice non-judgemental observation?
Go into nature and observe a flower, the trunk of a tree, a cobweb. Intensely observe it, look at the patterns, how it moves, the depth of colour, the stem. Try this for 5 seconds, then 10 seconds. Build on this muscle of observation. Move the observation to a wider lens, take in the room around you, notice things as they are, not how you want to see them. This is a plant, this is a window etc. By doing this, you are training yourself to pay more attention. Training attentional awareness goes hand-in-hand with listening to what someone is really saying to you.
So now you understand how to cultivate being present and more observant, the next step is a listening pattern and preparation. There isn’t just one right pattern, this is what works for me. When I am with a new coaching client, or doing an inquiry following a mindfulness practice, people can hold back for fear of judgment. However, before every meeting, I prep myself with the following steps:
Listening Pattern / Prep
- I have an open mind and a beginner’s mindset. Prepare to be Amazed is a wonderful motto to adapt to life.
- What is not being said? Paying particular attention to how the body reacts and responds but never try to interpret the posture. Just be aware of it. The words and body language will come together.
- Once the person has spoken, take a moment in silence. Never rush to fill the silence. Let this moment be where you gather your thoughts. And sometimes, in this silence, the person carries on speaking, offers up more.
- I usually ask “may I take a moment to reflect on what you just said” and I find comfort in the silence.
- Then I start by summarising and I focus on the most salient point I want to make. When I’m done, I ask, “What do you think?” “Do tell me if I got that wrong” or similar. Remember that your tone of voice and the context of everything that was shared matter. Then listen again and repeat. In doing this, you are creating a safe space for others to share their thoughts and showing up to hear what they have to say.
What works for me and might work for you – To be a better listener, practice being present and establish a listening pattern. Have an intention to be there for the person, with no agenda of your own, while they are speaking. And with many things that matter in life, this is simple but not easy. It takes practice and vulnerability to show up and step back.
Once you develop the skill of listening, here’s what I hope you’ll notice.
Stress levels might lower, they did for me.
Arguments are easier to resolve, decisions easier to make and relationships easier to make or walk away from. With this, peace of mind becomes easier to maintain.