“To listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.”
—Mark Nepo, poet, philosopher
“When I’m at work and listening to someone in a conversation or meeting, half of me is listening and the other half is thinking about what I need to do to prepare for my next meeting.” A product design executive at a tech company in Paris described his interpersonal habits this way at a mindfulness leadership program I facilitated. His experience is common. I hear it from businesspeople in pharmaceuticals, banking, publishing—in every industry, country, and culture. Mindful listening—focused attention to what another person is saying, without judging or having an agenda—is a foundational skill that is rarely practiced anywhere.
Instead, the ubiquitous listening style today is that the listener steps on the ends of the speaker’s sentences with “Yep, Yes, Uh-huh, Right . . .” And rather than make the speaker feel heard, this tends to press him or her to talk faster—and around the conversation goes. In our always-on, high-speed world, and particularly in the working world, people seem to get increasingly restless and frustrated while others are talking. This constant, low-grade sense of urgency can impede genuine communication. But with mindfulness, you can be the witness of how you interact with others, and make an effort to add value to the exchange for both sides.
Just as in meditation, the key to mindful listening is to simply notice when your mind begins to wander, and then gently bring your focus back to center—in this case, to the speaker. You train yourself to refrain from interrupting, adding your point of view, or sharing similar experiences. These interjections take away from the speaker’s experience by making it about you. Instead of projecting your experience or feelings onto their message, the idea is to listen with the intention only to hear with an open, receptive, nonjudgmental, and compassionate ear. One way to practice this is to repeat back to the speaker what you think you heard him or her say, to see if you fully understand what the person is trying to communicate. You might be surprised by how often your mental and emotional filters lead to misinterpretation, however subtle.
Just as in meditation, the key to mindful listening is to simply notice when your mind begins to wander, and then gently bring your focus back to center—in this case, to the speaker.
What are your listening habits?
Mindful listening is hard, for everyone. There are external and internal forces to manage, even when you’re putting in conscious effort. Noisy, open office spaces with interruptions from co-workers, technology devices pinging nonstop—all these disturbances add to the challenge of concentrating on conversation. And what’s happening in your head can be even more disruptive. Start looking deeply at your impulses and habits during interactions with different people. Do you tend to interrupt or “help out” by finishing someone’s sentence? If the person you’re talking with is struggling, is your immediate reaction to try to say something funny to break the tension? Or maybe there’s a silence that makes you uncomfortable, so you find yourself speaking just to fill the void.
We all have our conversational patterns, but seeing these tendencies is a way to learn about yourself from the inside out, and in turn, to know how to be truly present for someone else. With self-awareness, you can begin to listen with greater care—not only to words, but also to the emotion and meaning that the speaker is expressing. You’ll not only learn more from the speaker about who he or she is and what’s happening in his or her life, but you’ll feel more connected.
Businesspeople in my classes often report that they experience an unfamiliar sense of “freedom” when they start to listen mindfully. They notice that rather than being tense, forming their next thought, and waiting for a pause in the other person’s words, they’re free to truly hear and process what is being said. One guy in a Washington, D.C., class said he felt as if a physical burden had been lifted and he could feel more space to just listen. In the same session a consultant said she could see now how she disengages with listening as she starts processing, solving, and fixing problems her team brings to her. For others, it is as if they let go of being ready to hit the ball back over the net and win the next point. It’s a gift to you and the one talking; mindful listening is so fundamentally different from how we usually converse that we can feel it in our bodies as much as in our heads. In that space and perspective that you create, you can ultimately respond with greater wisdom and skill—but only when it’s your turn.
Try it — five key mindful listening techniques
1. Hear between the words. When you’re in conversation, set your mind to being present, receptive, and ready to listen with compassion. Bring yourself into the moment with a few deep breaths and ask yourself: What is this person communicating beyond the words they use? What is your sense of what they are feeling?
2. Use nonverbal cues to indicate you’re listening. When the other person is speaking, just listen. Let go of any agenda or points you want to make and try to be there quietly, but mentally active and alert. Use nonverbal signals like nodding or smiling to let the person know you’re tuned in.
3. Notice when your mind has wandered away from the conversation. As with mindful breathing, your thoughts will wander. When you realize that your mind has drifted, let go of the thoughts and return your attention to what the person is saying.
4. Scan your body language. Tuning in to your own body can give you valuable information about your direct experience when listening. Is there tightness in your chest, uneasiness in your belly? Or do you feel a lightness and a sense of joy?
5. Respond with curiosity. When you get fairly good at listening mindfully without speaking, begin to experiment with offering brief verbal comments that express kindness, or ask questions that deepen understanding. The key is to keep the focus on the speaker, not to bend it around to yourself. You might try, “Oh, that sounds rough. What happened next?”