“Deep listening is more than hearing with our ears, but taking in what is revealed in any given moment with our body, our being, our heart.”
Just this summer, I was at my doctor’s office for my annual checkup. Our visit started, as it usually does, with a series of questions about my current state of health. I sat, legs dangling from the examination table, starring absentmindedly at the posters on the wall. My doctor also sat, her back to me, as she riddled off a series of rather personal doctor-like questions. As I responded to each question, she earnestly entered my responses onto a file in her computer. Only once or twice, during that first 15 minutes of the visit, did our eyes connect for a brief moment when she turned her head slightly to confirm what I had said. No doubt my doctor was feeling the pressures of her day, and was seeking to complete her tasks in the most efficient way possible. As her patient, however, I felt completely disconnected and unseen as I sat there on the table. When I left that appointment, I reflected on what it is that we don’t say, what we keep to ourselves, when we feel there isn’t the time or space to share it. I also wondered about how much we miss in our daily lives because we are too busy to listen.
This situation, although it seemed rather profound to me at the time, is not unique. Every day, we are in situations where we choose distraction over connection. In line at the grocery store, I sometimes catch myself getting caught up on my messages rather than interacting with the cashier. Recently, I have become more aware of my tendency to do something (usually eating, washing the dishes or folding the laundry) while I talk on the phone. When in conversation with colleagues or friends, I often find myself thinking of my response or a suggestion to an issue or question, without truly listening to the person who is before me. The last U.S. Presidential debate is another, albeit slightly depressing, example of what conversations can look like when we fail to truly listen.
Listening with intention.
In this world of constant distraction, listening has become a real challenge. Daily, we are bombarded with information that comes to us at an often unmanageable rate of speed. Each day, several times a day, we are presented with the choice of showing up fully with others, or choosing to be somewhere else. We know what it feels like to be talking to someone who is busy texting, or the embarrassment we feel when we realize we are the ones who have lost track of a conversation because we became adrift in our own thoughts. The depth of our ability to listen can be seen as having an inverse relationship to distraction. The more distracted we are, the less we are able to really listen.
To combat the speed and distractions of modern Western life, we must become more intentional about how we show up in dialogue with others. In each moment, we have the choice to be present or distracted, and becoming aware of our ability to choose is a first important step.
“Music is the space between the notes” – Claude Debussy
Want to listen more effectively? Try these 3 steps:
1. Be fully present
When entering into a conversation, enter into it fully. This means turning off anything that could distract you, feeling your feet firmly on the ground and connecting with the person or persons you are with. For me, it means letting the dishes and laundry folding wait while I sit down for a moment and chat with my parents on the phone. Keeping ourselves free from distraction (and yes, our own thoughts are considered to be a distraction too!) allows us to put energy into being curious about what the other person is saying. While listening, rather than worrying about our next point, the story we want to share, or our never-ending to-do list, we can simply take the time to really consider what life is like from the other person’s perspective. Ask yourself, “what is it like to be this person, in this very moment?” and listen fully from this place of empathy and compassion.
2. Allow for silence
In order to truly listen, embrace silence. During the past month, I have been working on my own uneasiness around silence. When there is a lull in a conversation I can feel like I am not holding up my job as a conversationalist. I am compelled to jump in with another thought or comment, just to keep the conversation going. Recently, my coaching mentor suggested that I lean into this discomfort and resist the urge to ‘save’ the conversation. What I found in those uncomfortable pauses was that the conversations deepened. By giving my friends, colleagues or clients time to reflect and think within the conversation, they arrived at a deeper or more truth-feeling comment or insight that helped me better understand their unique perspective. Allowing for silence is an integral component of deep listening. It is in these silent spaces that we can hear so much of what is often silenced.
3. Listen to what isn’t being said
As humans we are highly intuitive beings. Using all of our senses as a way to connect more deeply with our own body is a powerful way to really hear what another person is saying. After all, we are constantly getting information from others in ways that don’t involve speech or hearing. Sometimes we are left with a hunch that something in the conversation was ‘off.’ Or, we leave a conversation feeling strongly that the person we were talking to was saying one thing, but actually meant something else. Arriving to a conversation, fully attuned to the moment, is the perfect way to develop our ability to better pick up on these non-verbal cues. Being open to the external cues of others (body language, voice intonation, facial cues) as well as internal cues from ourselves (sensations in our body, hunches, etc.) will allow us to more fully connect to what is really being said in the moment.
Listening beyond hearing.
As Susan McHenry alludes to, the act of listening goes much deeper than simply hearing what another person has to say. It is as if the act of hearing is the outermost edge of what it means to truly listen. Listening deeply requires so much more from us. It requires us to slow down enough so we are able to empty ourselves of the day's distractions and truly ‘hear’ what the other person is saying. When we take in another person fully — with our body, our being and our heart — something magical happens. By listening deeply, understanding is broadened, conflicts lessen and real connections between people are forged.