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Can you only hear me or are you listening?

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

As we move into the holiday period, there may be more interactions than usual with family, friends, colleagues — there is an opportunity to deepen connection and re-establish connections with people we’ve lost touch with; naturally there’s also more opportunity to break bonds and fall out with people — tends to happen around this time of year!?

Mindfulness — remember this is simply paying attention to your present moment experience (inner and outer world) with an open and accepting attitude — can be seen as an introspective practice, and for much of the time it is. The focus is on ‘my’ experience or ‘my’ physical sensations or ‘my thoughts’ — however, as we continue the practice it naturally impacts everything and everyone around us. This can may seem like a contradiction — more attention on ourselves leading to better relationships and communication with others — but without understanding the relationship that we have to ourselves, it will be difficult improving the relationships with we have with others.

Hearing is a passive physiological process. Listening is an active mental process which requires intention.

I don’t think it’s shocking to generalise that, through personal experience and notable observations, many social and relational problems can be traced back to difficulties in interpersonal communication — we don’t get people, or they don’t get us — we can’t read between the lines when we’re not truly present during the interaction. Ironically, the solution lies in developing effective means of communication and of fully being with others.

There is a difference between hearing, which is “a passive physiological process in which your ears take in the vibration of sounds without deliberate and thoughtful attention” and (active) listening which is “an active mental process where you intentionally and thoughtfully pay attention to the message the other person is conveying.” The latter suggesting that our intention plays a role, slowing down enough to be able to be mindful of yourself before and during an interaction.

“To really listen to others, we must first listen to ourselves”

- David Rome

During week 6 (of 8) of the mindfulness-based stress reduction program, we focus on interpersonal mindfulness — paying attention and being aware of ourselves and others during our communications with others.

Something I noticed when paying attention to myself during conversations with others was the tendency for my mind to be busy working out a response, or to dig around for some flowery vocabulary to look smart rather than actually listening with the intention to really understand, even interrupting folk mid-flow as the mind had already come to a conclusion about what they were going to say! Perhaps you can relate to the notion that we often hear what’s being said in order to reply adequately instead of simply to understand the other person. Often this can act as barrier to really listening to what is being said — not just the words but all the non-verbal communication that is on display.

A few simple things that we can do in any interaction that can help us tune into ourselves and the other person more, effectively taking an active approach during the meeting (they are part of the Insight Dialogue Practice Guidelines by Gregory Kramer):

Pause: Stop for a moment. Take a deep breath. Simply be here now.

This is to create an intentional break in between our thoughts, quieten any perceived understanding we may have on the conversation topic and avoids tendency to want to speak before listening.

Relax: Do you notice any obvious tension in the body? Let go of anywhere you may be holding on. Bring softness to any tightness that you may find.

Allow any tension or nerves to be experienced, not resisted or engaged in as wrong. For example, we may feel tense when unsure of what to say, or shy with particular people — this shows up in the body in some form.

Open: Open to the relational space. Soften any sense of separation.

At times communication is seen as competition, getting a message across, being ‘right’ — a felt sense of openness can dissolve these barriers to more open and fluid communication.

Notice how things change when employing these mindful guidelines during your interpersonal relations. What do you notice about the quality of the interaction? How did you feel about the other person? How did you come away from the meeting?

Wishing you all mindful communications and conversations this holiday period…

Check out this Forbes article for some further reading:

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