Communication is at the cornerstone of any relationship. It's how we connect, bond, work through challenges, and find enjoyment and companionship with others. When we think about deepening or improving our relationships — at home, at work, or anywhere else — we often think about what we will say, but we rarely think about what we will hear.
Have you ever felt like someone was so busy thinking of their response to you, that they didn’t listen to what you were saying? Have you ever been interrupted, noticed that someone was distracted while you were speaking, or felt misunderstood? The answer is probably yes. Now, a tougher question: do you ever do this in your conversations with others? The answer is also probably … yes.
As the saying goes, communication is a two-way street — and both sides are equally important. Mindful listening can help you improve your relationships by removing roadblocks on that two-way street. When you listen mindfully to your partner, friend, family member or colleague, it can improve your understanding and compassion, and reduce frustration. An added bonus: they may also be able to listen more mindfully to you in return.
Listening may seem like something you just “do” and don’t need to think about — but mindful listening is a skill that takes practice.
How to practice mindful listening
- Is your mind ready to listen? It’s easy to enter a conversation with your mind still humming about something else. To be a good listener, turn your brain away from other thoughts to focus on the present moment. If you have to take a deep breath, or pause for a moment to transition from one thought or conversation to the next, try to give yourself that time.
- Is your body ready to listen? How your body is positioned, where you keep your arms and hands, how you hold your eyes and mouth. Each is an important signal in nonverbal communication, and tells your partner in conversation about how closely you’re paying attention to them. Are your fists clenched? Are you looking at the ceiling while you formulate your next thought? Are your shoulders tensed and raised? Try to keep your neck and shoulders relaxed, take steady breaths, and hold a natural, open body position. Show your partner you are ready to hear them.
- Check your emotional awareness. Are you open to listening without judgement or preconception? This is particularly challenging when you are having a difficult conversation, where there may be some emotional triggers that can take the conversation off track. Be aware of your emotions: notice what they are, choose to set them aside, and redirect your energy to listening deeply.
Mindful listening does not mean you turn off your verbal self. But instead of using language to judge, interrupt, finish a thought or advise the speaker, you use language to help them more fully explore how they are feeling. Open-ended questions, encouraging verbal cues and rephrasing what you’ve heard are ways you can help move the conversation forward and show empathy towards the speaker. When you’ve done this, you will find that your own responses are more thoughtful, compassionate, and probably feel better to you both.
Listen up! How to help nurture mindful listening
- Remember to remove or turn off any physical distractions, such as your cell phone or TV.
- Have conversations when you're able to be fully present. It's OK to tell someone that you don't have time to focus, or ask to have a conversation when you can give it your full attention.
- Be patient: let the speaker finish their thought before you respond.
- Listen with empathy: seek to understand the other person’s point of view, even if you don’t share it.
- Paraphrase and repeat back what you’ve heard. This will help the speaker open up even further about their feelings and thoughts.
Reviewed by Kaiser Permanente Clinical Ambassadors, including Mark Dreskin, MD, Sharon Smith, LPC, and/or David Kane, LCSW. September 2018.
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