In-out Listening

Today we are inundated with large amounts of information.  At our fingertips or through voice-activated programs, we can get information on just about anything. The sheer volume of information we are exposed to demands we learn to be good multitaskers if we are to survive on an average day.

The constant flow of instant notifications has conditioned us to respond immediately leaving us little time to consider all the relevant information before we form an opinion or make a decision. Taking time to verify sources or question the information for accuracy is a step we often skip. We jokingly say, “It was on the internet, so it must be true, right?”

One of the many downsides to instantaneous reactions is the weakening our critical thinking skills; meaning the ability to conceptualize, analyze, and synthesize information. The ability to think critically begins with our ability to control our wandering mind and be aware of the biases and judgments that might be influencing our thoughts.

Much of the information we receive comes from listening. It seems that our ability to listen follows a predictable pattern.  We know we are the most focused at the beginning of the conversation and our attention drops and rises over time (Synecticsworld, 2010).  Our limited attention in listening occurs because our brains are pattern makers. These patterns are based on our experiences and our view of the world. In just 8 to 12 seconds, we are already making connections and forming judgments to what we are experiencing (Reynolds & Collins, 2014).

Our minds can process information much faster than we speak and we use this excess capacity to make these connections and generate thoughts.  “In-out listening” is a method that has been demonstrated to improve the ability to reflect and slow the judgment making process.

This method can be used both when you are actively engaging in a conversation or when you are listening to a medium such as TV or radio. Here is how the process works:

  1. The process begins by bringing your attention to the present. A straightforward way to do this is to engage your breath to reign in your wandering attention. Once you are focused in the present moment, notice what you are hearing, seeing, and feeling.
  2. Next, take note of the patterns or connections in your thoughts.  When you first start to practice this, you may want to jot down these relationships using keywords or phrases.
  3. Finally, tune back into the process of listening.  If you are involved in a conversation, re-engage and wait for an appropriate moment to ask for clarification, offer ideas, or provide support and empathy.  If you are listening to something from the media, take a moment to ask a few questions, such as:
  • How do I know what I am hearing is reliable or factual?
  • What patterns or conclusions am I drawing from this information?
  • Is there another way I can think about this?
  • How does this apply to me?

One of the most important tools in the development of our critical thinking skills is the ability to control our attention.  “In-out listening" is a simple process you can practice multiple times a day. 

After a few days of practice, you might find the “in-out listening" process becomes your default mode for listening and paving the way to improve your ability to think critically and engage more productively.


Reynolds, B., & Collins, J. S. (2014). Paradox: Listening to inner voices in an age of instant connectivity. Proceedings for the Northeast Region Decision Sciences Institute (NEDSI), 112-122.

Syneticsworld (2010).  Retrieved from The Innovative Team Workshop, June 6-8, 2013.


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