Are You Listening?

Honey, you never listen to me anymore. Has your significant other ever said this to you?  Or have you said this to someone else? Often it is not that we are purposely ignoring the other person. It’s just that our minds are busy doing something else.

Listening has become another multi-tasking opportunity. We view conversations as transactions to complete as quickly as possible. And while we are supposed to be listening, we are planning what we are going to say next or thinking about something else altogether. It is not possible to be a good listener and allow our attention to wander like this. For example, how many times have you had to ask someone to repeat what they said, or misunderstood something, or jumped to a damaging conclusion? 

Think about how it feels to be on the other side of that type of conversation. We all know when someone is pretending. Their eyes glaze over. There is a fixed smile on their face, and their body language says "are you done yet?" On the other hand, think of a time when someone listened to you. Someone who was completely present with you, asked questions to understand what you were saying, and expressed authentic concern. It was probably an incredible moment of bonding, a shared experience that made you closer. Just remembering that conversation perhaps invites a warm feeling in your heart even now. Listening like this requires that we pay attention to what the other person is saying and what they are not saying. Being agenda-free is critical…. not thinking about how their message affects us. It means suspending judgment and allowing the other person to express whatever is on their mind. This is indeed an act of love and compassion. And isn’t this what those closest to us deserve?

To break our old listening patterns requires us to set a deliberate intention to practice. Below are some ideas on how to be more present for those closest to you. One of the most intimate and rewarding things you can do to build your relationships is to listen openly and genuinely. Try this simple exercise to experience the power of being present for another person. Don’t worry if you don’t follow this precisely; it's more important that the other person senses your empathy and concern.

1)    Invite someone to share what is on his or her mind. It doesn’t have to be a specific topic. It could be just to find out how someone is feeling, what’s going on with them, what have they been thinking about.

2)    Set aside enough time to allow the conversation to flow to its natural conclusion.

3)     Find a place that is relatively distraction free.

4)    Paraphrase. When the other person has finished completing a thought, respond in a way that confirms what you heard and checks that you understand.

5)    Ask questions. If it is appropriate, ask questions to encourage the other person to explain or elaborate on his or her thoughts and feelings. Continue to ask questions with the intention to understand the other person’s point of view or feelings. Try not to jump to conclusions or impose your explanations.

6)    Stay present. When your mind wanders, or you start thinking about what you are going to say, gently bring your attention back to the other person. Trust that when it is appropriate for you to speak, you will know exactly the right thing to say.

7)    Express empathy. Empathy does not mean agreement. It has to do with understanding and acknowledging the other person’s point of view.

8)    Monitor your body language. Make eye contact, nod, sit facing the other person with a relaxed body. And observe the other person as well. If you notice a change in their body language and if it feels right, ask if there is something else they have to say.

9)     Stay Open and non-judgmental. Keep in mind that your goal is simply to understand the other person’s perspective.

10)  No problem solving or giving advice at this time. These things can wait until this discovery conversation is complete. It is best to offer solutions only when asked or when you both agree that it would be useful.

If this process is too structured for you, just set an intention to be present with an open heart in your conversation. And when you notice your mind wandering, gently bring it back to the present. Keeping the intention to show empathy to what the other person has to say will keep you focused on the best way to respond and relate.

Honoring someone with your complete attention is the greatest gift you can give them.


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