TRANSFORM THROUGH THE ART OF LISTENING
‘What is spoken may not be heard.
What is heard may not be understood.
What is understood may not be accepted.’
– Scott, 1981
Are you getting the message?
Like air, water and food, communication is essential to human existence. To all organisms, in fact. It’s a free, infinitely renewable resource, around which we’ve built tools, technologies and ecosystems. But while the opportunity for communication is everywhere and always on, unsatisfying communication is rampant. As the saying goes, ‘Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink’.
Communication – whether written or oral – implies a message delivered from a sender to a receiver. It involves the active participation of both and results in an exchange of information and feedback. The quality of our communication affects every single aspect of our relationships – personal and professional. Our social life is based on it. And our individual style of communicating uniquely defines who we are, our personality, how we’re perceived and why we might be liked, loved, tolerated or even avoided by others.
Poor communication creates micro and macro levels of miscommunication, frustration and inefficiency, impairing our interactions and relationships, and, at times, can lead to unnecessary stress and avoidable conflict. Ultimately, it causes lost of time, connection, creativity and collaboration. There are many reasons why communication is often broken or crooked, but it could almost certainly be improved by deepening our ability to listen.
Several studies have shown that we spend 70–80% of waking hours in some form of communication: 9% writing, 16% reading, 30% speaking and 45% listening. Unfortunately, these studies highlight what we already know: we are poor or inefficient listeners.
Is it surprising? Our educational system focuses primarily on reading, writing and speaking. We are trained to create and deliver content that is clear, articulate and engaging. TED talks and social media urge us to become public speakers, writers and bloggers; to gain visibility and prestige within our community, so courses abound. Yet, as we’ve seen, listening accounts for almost the same volume as the three other communication skills combined. So where are the classes dedicated to teaching us the art of listening?
Researchers have found that first grade students are the best listeners, able to give their full attention to a speaker. However, by high school only 28% of an average class actually listens. In one of the biggest mistakes of our educational system, listening has been relegated to a secondary skill, associated with passivity, and with roles that are more supporting or assisting others, rather than active leading roles. The question is, how much confusion, misunderstanding, frustration, and conflict would be avoided if we could learn – and learn early – to listen to each other?
Here’s a summary of its benefits:
Presence, connection, empathy and intimacy
Collaboration, productivity and creativity
Increases sense of wellbeing
Increases self-awareness and consciousness
The lost art of listening
Listening is a difficult ability to nurture, requiring a far higher level of focus, presence, awareness and intentionality than speaking, writing or reading. Few people are formally trained to listen: psychologists, coaches and mediators among others. But outside these professional categories how many are really able to actively listen? Think now: how many people do you consider amazing listeners? I can count very few.
Skilled active listeners are people we like to work and be with. They makes us feel respected, acknowledged and understood. They often provide us with valuable feedback. They are calmer and more in control of their emotions and responses.They exude confidence. With them we experience a sense of expansiveness, personal connection and presence. They are generally less prone to interpretation and more attuned to direct experience. They are the partners, friends, colleagues and leaders we all look for, yet – I’m sure you’ll agree with me – are the hardest to find.
Whether at work or at home, with colleagues, friends, family or partners, all too often we feel others are not fully paying attention to what we say. We speak; they tune in and out. Yet we are all – or most of us – guilty. Just notice how often, as a listener, you space out during a conversation or a call; even when watching the news. Instead of being fully present, your mind starts chatting, commenting, judging or analysing the message, or wandering towards chores, to-do lists and minutiae. As listeners we often feel the urge to interject, add to, jump to conclusions or interpret the message through our own bias. In the struggle to stay present, we miss information and then attempt to connect the dots of a broken message. Whether unconsciously or consciously, and to a greater or lesser degree, as a lay listener this is our modus operandi. We are inwardly focused rather than actively and unbiasedly connecting to others. But we shouldn’t beat ourselves up. It’s not our fault we’re lousy listeners. It’s all about the monkey and its gap.
The monkey and the gap
4,000 years ago a brilliant man – probably one of the most powerful philosophers, psychologists and spiritual leaders of all time – the Buddha, coined the expression, ‘The monkey mind’, to describe the hyperactive minds of humans. Like the tree-dwelling mammal, our minds jump from one branch to the the next, from one topic to another, one storyline to the next. We ‘mind travel’ back and forth in time, creating imaginative storylines, making assumptions, commenting, judging and more, chronically disconnected from the now. According to Buddha’s teaching this is the default mode of a mind that struggles to stay present, focused and unbiased to what appears in the moment.
He would have never imagined (or perhaps he did) the rate at which technology would exponentially exacerbate the monkey mind. Through technology use we unconsciously train our innately hyperactive brains into a constant state of alertness and reactivity. We are here and elsewhere at the same time, tweeting, texting, jumping from one conversation to the next, faster and faster. Instead of taming the monkey we feed it with its own poison: an accelerated cacophony of input and interactions.
There’s another reason why we wander so easily: the way the brain functions. We talk at a rate of about 125–175 words per minute, while we think (listen) at the rate of up to 450 words per minute. This substantial gap between speaking speed and thought speed represents a 75% time differential in which the monkey mind can wander, entertaining itself with additional words and thoughts. This goes some way towards explaining why we retain, remember and understand so little of what we hear – only one quarter according to research. Counterbalancing the forces of mind wandering and bringing awareness to the challenging task of listening takes effort, yet could be easier than you think.
Minding the gap
Buddha taught that our minds can be tamed and slowed down by meditation. This contemplative practice calms our internal monkey and generates mindfulness. To be mindful means not operating on autopilot. Rather than reacting, we consciously and purposefully respond, act and deeply connect with what is present now. Mindfulness and deep listening go hand in hand; they are two sides of the same coin.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, guru of the practice, defines mindfulness as, ‘Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non judgmentally’. To me, this means listening, being fully present, with our mind and heart open to receive, without agenda or preconceived ideas. As we train our brains to slow down and settle into the gap – to become mindful – we can really, truly listen. We can be present, unbiased and open to what is presented to us.
Mindfulness – as a byproduct of mediation – is desperately needed in modern life. When we are mindful we feel expansive, relaxed, connected to our inner selves and to others. It enables us to lead ourselves purposely and intentionally. This is why the ever evolving science of leadership is paying tribute to mindfulness and deep listening as essential prerequisites. They are the cornerstones of transformational leadership, which, by definition, ‘Causes change in individuals and social systems. In its ideal form, transformational leadership creates valuable and positive change in its followers with the end goal of developing followers into leaders’. These leaders know there is wisdom and efficacy in mastering the art of listening, and are well aware of the benefits that listening begets within a culture or organisation.
Luckily, we needn’t formally meditate to boost mindfulness. There’s no need to sit on a cushion, legs crossed. We just need train ourselves to listen, and, conveniently our daily life offers this opportunity. First however, it’s helpful to understand the structure of listening.
The 3 levels of listening
- Internal: We often listen at this shallow level; what we could term, ‘monkey listening mode’. Here we listen primarily to our mind chatter. Attention is mostly inward, on our own thoughts, feelings and interpretations or judgements; we are reactive. It’s good enough to get by but our level of mindfulness is extremely low.
- Active: This is when, as a listener, we are completely focused on the other person, paying full attention to what the person is saying. And if we disconnect, we are aware of it, and immediately tune in again to what is being communicated. At this level we are active, able to control and manage ourselves. We are mindful.
- Global: This the deepest level of connection. It is a soft, receptive focus that encompasses everything around us, our senses, and our environment. We are relaxed and able to connect with the speaker in a non judgmental way, and we listen to the unspoken, to the non-verbal. We have no agenda, read the energy of whatever emerges and work with it. It’s a spacious, calm state in which we’re completely present to ourselves and others at all levels; intellectual, emotional and physical. We dance in the moment with the other.
Although it’s idealistic to imagine we can listen at the third level at all times, it is something to at least aspire to. And it’s normal to listen at all three levels throughout the day as our energy and attention fluctuate. However, mindful listening, if we practice it, will change our lives and relationships in ways that are unimaginable. As neuroscience shows, entrenched habits are hard to break, but if we keep focusing on them with gentle compassion, intentionality and discipline we can change our hard-wired negative behaviours and rewire them more positively. Below are three simple steps to mastering the art of listening. When I train my clients I call this technique the 3As: Aware, Active and Awaken.
Practicing the 3 As: Aware, Active and Awaken
1. Listen to yourself: Aware
The degree to which we can connect with others springs from our connection within; how tuned in we are with what happens inside us, so the first step towards mindful listening is to listen to yourself, to pay attention to your own chatting and train of thought. Spend five minutes every morning observing your thinking while keeping a soft yet constant focus on breathing in and out. Your breath is your home. Greet your own mind and label the thoughts it creates as ‘thinking’. Don’t judge or follow them, instead come back to the breath again and again. If you find this challenging you are on the right path. You are now aware of how hard is to listen to your own breath, and stay present to it. Here you experience the ‘monkey mind’, its speed and its addiction to imaginative storytelling. Advance your practice – when ready – by incorporating external sounds, for example, cars, birds tweeting, the wind, with the breath. Connect to where you are, maybe even open your eyes. Thoughts come, just notice the emotion they bring and let them go with a ‘thinking ‘ label, returning to the breath and the unique moment you are in. You’re teaching the monkey to be present and open.
While continuing your daily morning awareness practice, pay attention to how many times during the day your mind wanders when listening to someone. When that happens just come back gently to the conversation as you did with the breath in your morning practice. Now you’re ready for the next level up. A simple yet powerful exercise to train the mind to slow down so it can really follow what is being said (remember the speed differential between speaking and listening that causes us to disconnect), is to practice ‘word mirroring’. Initially practice with a friend or colleague: whatever they say, repeat it out loud. You’ll soon notice how hard it is to stay focused. Your mind moves faster than their speech and wants to follow its own fast-paced thinking. Word mirroring trains the brain to slow down by repeating words while focusing on the content. It seems easy but is actually quite challenging
2. Listen to others: Active
With this increased awareness, use mirroring silently when people talk. If you miss some what they say because your mind wandered, kindly interject, summarise the last concepts or words you heard, and ask for clarification. Don’t be afraid, people do understand, and will appreciate your candor and commitment to them. As you continue to practice word mirroring, urges to interrupt, interject, assume and presume while listening will decrease and you’ll eventually become an active listener (level 2). What’s more, this new level of consciousness will result in a deeper connection with others. You’ll feel calmer, more expansive and in control of your emotions and responses, and able to create a richer space for you and others to connect and communicate at a higher level of acceptance, empathy and flexibility.
3. Listen to the energy: Awaken
Once active, mindful listening has become natural to you, a higher level of awareness will inform your communication. You’ll become conscious of how each thought or word triggers an emotional response, which manifests in physical form both in you and the speaker. Instead of interjecting or tuning out you continue to stay engaged, open and flexible within the conversation. You meet the other where he or she is, intellectually and emotionally. When we listen at this deeper level, we tap into the coherence and intelligence that exists in our mind, heart and body. This space is available to us all the time and we can use it as our vantage point. Our receptiveness to the unspoken and the unmanifested awakens. This is listening at level 3 – ‘Global’. It feels immersive, engaging and meaningful for both parties; you are in partnership with each other. The space is warm, the energy fluid and creative. You inhabit the conversation completely, without agenda. From this field your empathy, intuition and curiosity sharpen; you are called to ask powerful questions that deepen your understanding and build from there. This level of listening personally transforms both parties who experience it and bring to results that were unimaginable before. You experience flow.
Emilio Estevez said: ‘We have all these devices that keep us connected, and yet we’re more disconnected than ever before. Why is that?’. There is a shared sense of urgency in all dimensions of our hectic lives, both personally and professionally. The time to reconnect with ourselves and others is now, by means of mindful listening.
Just as I train clients in mindful listening, I train myself. I practice each of the 3As constantly and consistently in my daily life and, with time, I’m becoming more aware how often I tune out, and am able to come back to the conversation quickly. In life, there are many arts to master and discipline is the mother of them all. We learn by experience, and we change habits by dedication and repetition. Just like meditation, this is an ongoing practice.
I recommend beginning to practice with curiosity and a genuine interest in connection. By listening, we can learn about and transform our relationship with ourselves and others – much more than we can through talking.