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Why true listening can be so difficult

Updated: Feb 29

And how Mindfulness can help you become a better listener

I would argue that the ability to listen is not only one of the most important skills for a good communicator to have, but maybe the hardest one to learn and apply.

This is because the act of listening engages both your brain and your mind intensely. In other words, it requires both Attention and Intention.

Challenge No. 1: Attention

Listening is hard work for your brain. It requires you to simultaneously activate many of your cognitive skills, like auditory reception, information processing and short-term memory. But most of all, focussed attention.

If you want to be a good listener you need to be able to focus your attention completely on the other person and shut out any distractions. If you have ever talked to someone who was constantly checking their phone while you were speaking, you know how it feels when you’re not getting someone’s full attention.

Put your smartphone out of sight when you're having a conversation.

Speaking about phones, did you know that in social settings, the mere presence of a smartphone, even if it's lying face-down on the table, negatively impacts attention and disrupts social interactions? So if you're having an important conversation, the best thing you can do is put your phone on silent mode and leave it in your pocket or bag.

If you find it difficult to focus in general, be mindful of choosing a location with few distractions for any important conversations, like a quiet corner in a coffee shop.

Challenge No. 2: Intention

On top of that, if you want to truly listen, you need to establish a mindset of curiosity and open-mindedness, a willingness to really understand the other person. This too, is not easy.

Often, when we listen, we are merely waiting for our turn to speak. We mentally prepare how we will respond based on how it relates to us.

To truly listen means to take yourself out of the equation.

Have you ever experienced this situation? Something is bothering you and you decide to share it with a friend or your partner. At some point, maybe even before you're finished, they interrupt you by saying something like “I can completely relate. I actually had a similar experience just last week when my boss came to me and said…” And all of a sudden, the focus of the conversation has switched to them and their story, their issue.

As humans, we have a natural tendency to relate everything we hear back to ourselves. And this presents another obstacle. Assuming we have grasped the other person's situation or issue, we're often quick to switch to problem-solving mode. "I know what you mean. I had the same problem and here's how I resolved it." Even though this is well-intentioned - we want to help, to give advice - it prevents us from truly listening. To truly listen, means to take yourself out of the equation.

Practicing Mindfulness

It’s this interaction between Attention and Intention that makes true listening so challenging. As with everything, the only way to improve is to practice.

The good news is, you don’t necessarily have to take a course in active listening. There is a practice that allows you to train both your Attention and your Intention at the same time: Mindfulness Meditation.

Mindfulness practices has been proven to increase focus and attention.

Regular mindfulness meditation practice has been shown to reduce distractions and increase focus. Practicing mindfulness also helps cultivate curiosity and humility, two central aspects of good listening.

Applying curiosity means asking questions instead of giving advice. Coming from a place of humility means putting aside preconceived ideas and assumptions, and entering into a conversation with no other agenda than to listen with complete attention.

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