We have all had moments of being physically present in a room while a conversation is taking place and yet mentally being elsewhere. Likewise, most of us have had the experience of reading a page in a book before realizing we could not recall what we’d just read.
Despite being physically present for something, we do not always grant our full attention to the words being shared with us. Our mind is elsewhere. With numerous thoughts, feelings, and emotions tugging at our attention in any moment, it can be difficult to fully tune in sometimes. This is where mindful listening comes in: it brings us back to what is being said.
In this comprehensive guide to mindful listening, we will explore:
What is Mindful Listening?
Mindful listening is the practice of granting our full attention to what is being shared with us in any moment. Mindfulness, in and of itself, is about paying open attention to our experience without judgment and without criticism. Applied to our role as listener in a conversation, mindfulness guides us to take in what another person is saying with the same openness, curiosity, and non-judgment that we would grant to anything else we are mindfully tending to.
Oren Jay Sofer, teacher of mindfulness, meditation, and Nonviolent Communication, explains that there are many ways to listen. He writes:
“We can listen to the content of what someone says, to how they’re feeling, to what’s important beneath their words. We can listen half-heartedly or whole-heartedly.”
Why Mindful Listening is Important
To understand why mindful listening is important, it is helpful to tune into how we ourselves feel when we know someone has granted us their full attention while we’re speaking. Chances are, when we are being listened to mindfully, we feel heard, understood, cared for, and honored.
To expand on this, when we listen to another person with our full, open-hearted attention, some of the benefits are as follows:
If we think about the fact that communication is at the heart of all human relationships, it is not difficult to understand just how important mindful communication is. How we communicate sets the tone for our relationship as a whole. Even when times are difficult, it is possible to start shifting the energy of our interactions through presence, non-judgment, and curiosity.
Mindful Listening During Difficult Conversations
We do not have to pretend that mindful listening is easy when we are in the midst of a difficult conversation. With that said, just because something is difficult does not mean we should avoid it. Mindful listening is crucial during difficult interactions if we wish for our relationships to grow and evolve in mutually-beneficial ways.
Mindful listening during difficult conversations does not require us to:
Rather, mindful listening during tough conversations invites us to open up to another person with as much compassion, patience, and curiosity as we can. If we are being abused in any way, mindful listening can inform us of where our boundaries are and help us to enforce them.
In commonplace disagreements, mindfulness guides us to lay down our judgments, assumptions, and the little voice inside that wants to quickly react. It is about expanding out from our confined way of thinking to consider with openness the needs, views, and opinions of someone else. As Oren Jay Sofer writes:
“To truly listen depends on a kind of inner silence. It requires that we empty ourselves and make space to receive something new. This entails a fundamental letting go of self-centeredness. We have to be willing to put down our own thoughts, views, and feelings temporarily to truly listen. It’s a wholehearted, embodied receptivity that lies at the core of both communication and contemplative practice.”
Learn from renowned mindfulness teachers, including Oren Jay Sofer, Rick Hanson, Spring Washam, and more, and become a certified mindfulness meditation teacher.
How to Practice Mindful Listening: 6 Steps to Follow
To listen with openness, curiosity, and non-judgment requires presence. While mindful listening might take a slightly different form depending upon our circumstances, we can enhance this mindful communication practice by following some basic steps:
1. Set an intention to listen more mindfully.
First, it can be helpful to set an intention to be a more mindful listener. This provides us with a principle – a stable base – to come back to when we become distracted or reactive. If we are not clear on our intention, the mind will naturally resume its conditioned ways of communicating.
2. Find your inner silence.
When the conversation begins, it is important to tap into the silence inside of you in order to make space for what another person is saying. If our mind is preoccupied and wandering, we will not be able to grant our full attention to anyone else. You can find your inner silence by taking a few mindful breaths, relaxing any physical tension in the body, or even letting your thoughts know that you will come back to them later. Now is the time to listen.
3. Mind your judgments and impulse to react.
While someone else is speaking, it is natural for the mind to interject within its own confines. This is not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, but it should be noted. Be mindful of how you are reacting, observing those thoughts without judgment as well. Then, come back to what is being shared.
4. Listen to the energy surrounding the words.
Practice your ability to pick up on subtle energy by observing what another person is not saying. This isn’t about ‘reading between the lines’; it is simply an invitation to develop empathy and intuition. For instance, is there sadness behind what is being said? Is there fear? Is there confusion?
5. Summarize what you are sensing.
When the other person has finished speaking, take a moment to summarize the key points you picked up. You can do this by starting with any of the following:
The purpose of summarizing what you are sensing is two-fold. First, it can help the other person to feel seen, heard, and cared for. Secondly, it can help to clear up any miscommunication that might have happened. Perhaps we heard or interpreted something incorrectly. This grants us increased clarity and accuracy in our perceptions.
6. Ask clarifying questions.
Lastly, we cannot underestimate the power of heart-centered, clarifying questions. Whether we are uncertain about something shared or have a genuine interest in learning more about the other person’s experience, the right questions deepen communication. Examples of questions we might consider include:
There is, of course, no ‘perfect’ questions to ask and no rulebook we can follow. Each moment requires something unique. However, by tuning in with openness, warmth, and curiosity, we just might find the words to carry the conversation a little bit further.