Mindful Listening – Improve Your Communication
Mindful listening is an important and powerful practice. We have made it a part of our practice together, and have seen many benefits from dedicating time to cultivating this ability.
With practice, we can listen in a way that promotes wellness, ease, and liberation in both ourselves and the other person. As we start this journey toward mindful listening, we learn to deeply listen to other beings in our lives. We learn to be more mindful in our interactions with other people, and our lives. As Thich Nhat Hanh says,
“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person.”
We can learn to listen more mindfully with a few practices, cultivating our interpersonal communication skills. As we investigate what it means to listen with mindfulness, we gain the opportunity to connect with others on a deeper level.
We’ll offer a few tips, practices, and bits on cultivating this quality, and you can also check out our courses and meditations at the bottom of this post. We offer both a collection of guided meditations for couples, and an online course investigating mindfulness in relationships.
What is Mindful Listening?
Have you ever noticed yourself waiting to speak when somebody else is talking? Or maybe you are forming arguments or defenses in your head? We all listen without resting our awareness 100% on the experience we are having. We instead fall into thinking, judgement, or maybe paying attention to something else entirely.
Mindful listening is the practice of tuning into the experience of listening with wisdom, recognition, and presence. If we had to give a single definition of mindful listening, we would say that it is the quality of listening with our entire awareness on the experience.
When we listen with mindfulness, we can tune into a few things. We may be noticing what the person is saying to us and gain some insight into their experience. Or, we may be noticing the reaction or response we’re having in the mind, body, or emotional field. Whatever is arising, we come back to the present-time experience of listening to this person speak.
Mindful Listening Practices
Learning to listen with awareness isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. Like learning to meditate, it is a practice that takes some time. Here are a few practices we work with to help cultivate the ability to listen with our full awareness and presence.
This first practice in mindful listening is relatively straightforward and simple. When you’re listening to somebody during your day, just stop and listen. Quite often, we talk on the phone while doing dishes, have a conversation while typing an email, or play games on our phone while having a discussion.
Instead, try to pause and really listen. This is just a first step toward mindful listening, but a large one. We can’t fully listen when we are doing something else, so stop and really move toward listening. When you have the urge to do something else, just return to your intention to listen.
This can be a great way to practice meditation at work, as we can do this without anyone realizing we are dedicating energy toward practice. I find myself doing all kinds of things while on the phone, and really make an effort to pause and be present with the conversation in front of me. Give it a shot!
This is a practice for which we have to set aside time and find a partner, and comes from our Practice for Two online course.. You can do this with a significant other, a friend, or a student of yours. Be aware that it can be somewhat uncomfortable and vulnerable, so make sure you promote safety in yourself and the other person.
Start by picking one person to speak first, and one person to listen first. You can switch, and will both have the opportunity to practice from each end of the dynamic.
Set a timer for five minutes, and pick a question to ask. Once the timer starts, the person speaking has five minutes to talk without interruption. This is a practice in mindful speech, and a practice in listening for the person not speaking.
As you talk, investigate for yourself what comes up, what feels safe, and where you filter yourself. While listening, try to be present with this other person. Observe their words and experience, and notice what you find yourself thinking while the person is sharing. When the timer runs out, pause for a moment before switching roles with the same question.
I recommend facing your partner head-on with this practice, and sitting at equal eye level if possible. You can really pick any question you want, but here are a few we like to start people off with:
- What is something that brings you joy?
- What is something that brings you sadness?
- Tell me about somebody you admire and why.
- What are your deepest hopes and intentions for yourself?
This is a beautiful practice in both mindful listening and mindful communication as a whole. We can start with a similar foundation as before. Sit facing one another, and set aside fifteen minutes or so. You can use one of the questions above, or perhaps investigate a different one for this practice. A few we like are:
- What is something you are struggling with?
- What is something you have done that makes you proud of yourself?
- Who do you look up to and why?
- What’s a difficult situation you face regularly?
Like the above questions, these are just suggestions. You can investigate for yourself what is useful. We offer these as suggestions to investigate the practice, remembering that the work here is really in listening, and not the content always.
One person can answer the question for five minutes without interruption, and the other person gets a chance to reflect back what they heard for two minutes. When reflecting back, the person is just sharing what they heard. The goal isn’t to share deep insights or advice. Instead, just share what you heard the person say.
This can be quite an interesting practice. When I was first introduced to this practice, I wasn’t very excited about it. However, it can be insightful to hear our thoughts passed back to us by a friend. This helps us to listen carefully, and practice really learning what we’re hearing.
Out Loud Vipassana
This last practice is a bit different, and is rooted in a meditation practice. There are many different types of Buddhism, and one tradition is called the Insight tradition, or vipassana tradition. Vipassana means insight, specifically into the nature of experience.
If you’ve done a traditional vipassana meditation or noting practice before, this should be familiar. If not, no worries. You can practice out loud with this method of cultivating the ability to listen mindfully. Like the other practices, we’ll go one at a time.
You can pick one person to start, and set a timer for a few minutes (however long you see fit). The person speaking will be simply noting whatever arises in their experience, while the other person pays attention as much as possible. With vipassana, we’re noting whatever arises.
You may note something you’re seeing, something you’re hearing, a thought in the mind, an emotion, etc. You can use the prompt “Right now I am noticing _________.” You may be noticing the person’s smile, the sound of a car going by, or whatever else is happening. Continue to note out loud what comes up in your awareness.
For the person listening, this is a practice in both mindful listening and recognizing the humanity of the other person. We can see that the other person’s experience may not be as different from our own as we thought. The mind works similarly (which is why we are called One Mind Dharma!).
These are just practices for cultivating mindful listening. Working with these can really help us learn to sit and listen with awareness. However, we still have to go out into the real world and practice! Here are a few ways to bring these practice to life.
Return to the Present
Just like we do with any practice, we can practice returning over and over again to the present moment. This is what we do with breath meditations in samatha practice, and we can do the same with listening.
When you notice the mind wandering, just come back to the person speaking. We may need to do this repeatedly, but it takes continual cultivation. As we bring the awareness back over and over to the person speaking, we cultivate the ability to really be present when listening.
Resting in the Body
When listening to someone, we can always return to the body to see what is present. Often, our responses and reactions have a physical aspect. We can see when we grow tense, when we are drawn toward something being said, or when we are agitated. As you continue to investigate the body’s reaction, you will begin to see clearly what it is like to listen.
When resting some awareness in the body, we can both listen and be aware of the body. Think of it as a 50/50 split in awareness. Tune into what is being said, and where the body is at. Notice the reactions and responses that arise. This can help us stay grounded and present while listening, seeing a bit more clearly what’s going on.
Watching the Planning Mind
Often, the mind begins planning when somebody else is speaking. It begins coming up with a response, thinking about other things, or just wandering. We can notice when the mind does this, and just note it in our heads. We don’t need to push the planning mind away or resist our experience. Instead, just note it is happening, and return to actually listening!
Obviously asking a question is not actually listening, but it can be a great way to encourage mindful listening. When somebody says something you want to know more about or don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Asking a question is a great way to practice honesty in admitting we want to know more, and encouraging ourselves to listen.
Practices for Two
We have two offerings which have been popular since they were released last year. These are meditations for couples or partners, and an online course. Both offer practices and methods for cultivating the ability to listen, be vulnerable, and connect more deeply.
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