Learning to Listen

“Opportunities are often missed because we are broadcasting when we should be listening.”

In order to open our heart to another person, we must deeply listen to what they have to say. This may sound relatively easy, but it isn’t. When most people say they are “listening,” particularly in a tense situation, what they actually mean is, “I’m biding my time until I can carve out another opportunity to state my point of view.” However, listening with a churning gut and a racing mind, while busily planning our next rebuttal, is not real listening.

In a culture that honors “doing,” multi-tasking, and filling in all the empty places of the day, the art of listening has been all but lost. When our minds are full of TV plots, news headlines, radio jingles, e-mail jokes and to-do lists, it is hard to sit down with the people we care about and take the time to deeply listen. Even in the best of circumstances, listening is hard, and when we feel angry, hurt, or feeling backed into a corner, the difficulty magnifies.

Here are ten ways you can practice listening in your daily life:

  • Commit to listening. Listening is a skill all of us can learn. All it takes is the intention: “I want to learn to listen.”
  • Start with easy conversations. Practice listening in situations where you don’t have a lot at stake.
  • Notice where your mind wanders. Without judging yourself, pay attention to the meandering path of your mind. When are you paying attention? When does your attention wander? Notice how often your mind wanders to the past and the future, how rarely it stays fixed in the present.
  • Bring your mind back. When you notice that your mind is no longer focused on what the other person is saying, gently bring it back and listen again. Do this every time you notice it wandering.
  • Don’t clutter the conversation with your ideas, experiences and opinions. Remain quiet or say things that draw the other person out. “Really? Tell me more.” Or, “That’s interesting. Why do you feel that way?”
  • Honor the other person’s humanity. Remember that the person in front of you is a human being with feelings and needs and ideas as cherished as your own. Your life will be richer for knowing what’s truly in another person’s heart.
  • Practice in more challenging situations. Once you become comfortable listening in non-threatening situations, try listening in situations where you have more at stake.
  • Listening doesn’t mean you have to agree. Just because you’ve chosen to deeply listen to another person’s point of view doesn’t mean you have to change your own.
  • Observe your feelings. When you listen in a conflicted situation, all kinds of feelings will arise. Notice them, but don’t express them. Observe your reactions and responses, then return to listening. Remind yourself that your goal is not to win, but to deeply understand the human being in front of you.
  • Don’t expect perfection. The object of these exercises isn’t perfection; it’s gradually increasing your ability to concentrate, your capacity to listen, and your awareness of your own unique and idiosyncratic mind.

When our objective is to get to know another person, rather than to win, solve problems, or take control, listening can lead us to a place of great compassion, understanding, and kindness.