One of the key barriers to good listening is being distracted. This may be because you are listening to several things at once, such as your partner, your child and the television. You may also be trying to do something else at the same time as listen, such as prepare a meal, or look at something on your phone. Even with the best intentions, you may become distracted by your own thoughts.
There is a very real problem here. Despite the hype, none of us is really capable of genuine ‘multi-tasking’—at least, not effectively. To do anything well, including listening, you need to give it your full attention.
This page describes mindful listening, which is a technique that can help you to focus on listening, and bring your mind back when it wanders.
Mindfulness and Listening
Our page on Mindfulness explains that this concept describes the idea of being aware of the current moment and circumstances.
In other words, being mindful means concentrating on what is happening right here, and right now, and using all your senses to experience it.
We usually talk about mindfulness with the context of meditation. In mindful meditation, you concentrate on the things that you can see, hear, touch, feel and smell around you, concentrating on each in turn. In mindful listening, however, your focus is not so much the world around you as the person speaking.
Mindful listening therefore means:
Using your ears and hearing to appreciate the words that the speaker has chosen, and also the tone, pitch and volume of their voice;
Using your eyes and vision to take in their body language and other non-verbal communication such as their facial expression; and
Using your mind to understand and reflect on their meaning in a non-judgemental way, and eventually to develop a response.
Developing Mindful Listening
The first step—and perhaps the most important—in mindful listening is to make a conscious decision to listen more mindfully.
In other words, you need to decide to focus more on the speaker each time you are listening. Once you have done this, you then have a reason to check yourself each time your mind starts to wander. Mindfulness includes noticing what your thoughts are doing, and bringing them back to your main focus: the speaker and what they are saying.
Your mind WILL wander. Just bring it back each time.
It is important to note that your mind will wander. Everyone’s mind wanders sometimes.
With mindful listening, the essential aspect is to notice—and then simply to bring your mind back to the speaker, and your main task: listening.
The second step of mindful listening is to listen.
Often, when we are listening, we are actually developing a response. We are reacting to what is being said, or how it is being said, and making a judgement about it, before we have to respond. Mindful listening requires you to consciously set aside your own reaction and emotions, and simply listen.
The purpose is to fully understand what the other person is saying—and also what they are feeling. In other words, mindful listening is also a very empathetic process, because it helps you to feel with the other person. This, in turn, will help you to understand them better, and will therefore improve your interpersonal relationships.
There is more about the importance of this in our page on Empathy.
Mindful Listening or Active Listening?
Some people suggest that mindful listening is the same as active listening. There are certainly similarities between them. For example, both involve using all your senses, and focusing on the speaker to the exclusion of any distractions. Indeed, many of the techniques are very similar.
Ultimately, it probably doesn’t matter which approach you choose—as long as you focus on the speaker, and their message, and ensure that you are giving them your full attention.
For more see our page on active listening.
The Benefits of Mindful Listening
Mindful listening has many benefits, both for you and those to whom you are listening.
First, it is hard to overestimate the value of giving someone your full attention. We all like to be heard—and not just heard, but understood and appreciated. Mindful listening allows you to do just this.
Mindful listening will also deepen your levels of empathy, which in turn will improve your interpersonal relationships. Interestingly, it also helps you to develop better self-awareness—which in turn will feed into better emotional intelligence, and again, to better interpersonal relationships.
Not Just for Home (or Work)
Mindful listening is a practice that you can use at any time, and anywhere. It is very much NOT just something that you would use in your personal relationships, or just at work.
Instead, its use will improve all your relationships, and deepen your ability to connect with others more quickly and in a more meaningful way.
Approaches to Mindful Listening
There are many different approaches and practices that you can use for mindful listening. One of the simplest, but also extremely useful, is the HEAR approach (see box).
A Technique for Mindful Listening: HEAR
A useful technique for mindful listening goes by the acronym HEAR. This stands for:
Stop what you are doing, and give your full attention to the speaker, or the sound to which you are going to listen.
Take a deep breath and simply enjoy listening. Make a conscious decision to receive the communication, whether you originally wanted to hear it or not.
Ask yourself if you really know what the speaker meant—and if not, ask them.
Reflect back what you heard, to both confirm your understanding, and show that you were listening.
Source: Mindful magazine, February 2017.
As a way to develop your ability to listen mindfully, you might also try listening to a new piece of music: one that you have never heard before, or even a completely new genre. As you listen, consciously set aside your reaction to the music. Don’t think about whether you like or dislike it, simply listen to the sounds. Try to pick out different instruments and/or voices, and notice the sounds that they make, and how they blend together. Purposefully avoid any kind of judgement, but simply experience the music with the whole of your mind. This will help you to listen more mindfully to speech, too.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn more about the key communication skills you need to be a more effective communicator.
Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their interpersonal skills and are full of easy-to-follow, practical information.
It is a fact that almost all of us would benefit from becoming better at listening.
Taking time to focus your full attention on someone else when they are speaking is very powerful. It shows them that you value what they are saying—and it means that you will truly hear and understand their message.