Deepen your listening skills by removing distractions and being in the moment
By Leslie Shore
The most important skill needed to build and keep a loving relationship is communication. When we begin relationships, we attend to the other person because we want to get to know him. We listen to her likes and dislikes, history, family dynamics, dreams and fears. We spend hours in conversation, discovering each other. No fact too small, no story too long. The building of the relationship has newness and surprises. Then, over time, real life happens. Work pressure, money issues, no time to connect, and parenting tensions become ever-present distractions. More and more conversations morph into arguments or confrontations. How did we get here? Whatever happened to the way we used to communicate?
The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Who is fair in all the world who listens to us? Here I am — this is me in my nakedness, with my wounds, my secret grief, my despair, my betrayal, my pain, which I can’t express, my terror, my abandonment. Oh, listen to me for a day, an hour, a moment, lest I expire in my terrible wilderness, my lonely silence. Oh God, is there no one to listen?”
There is. The person you love who also loves you is there to listen. And like you, he has forgotten the most important component of deep listening: being present. There are two components to presence, one physical and one emotional. Both of them need attending to if a conversation is to stay rational, adult, and successful.
First consider the physical aspects of the distractions of technology and multi-tasking. When we add the distraction that comes with multi-tasking we are in trouble, because listening is a single-minded, reasoning task., and m Multi-tasking and listening effectively at the same time are mutually exclusive. When we look at technology, with phones ringing, computers popping up e-mail, cell phone ring tones, and text messages alerts beeping all distract us, we know technology is at work distracting us from effectively listening. Now, let’s add yet another layer of multi-tasking, the kind that is second nature and almost invisible to us is as multi-tasking. Many of us are guilty of looking through the mail while talking; typing a quick email on our smartphone while in conversation; or having a conversation while the television is on.
One of my students made this point in his listening reflection paper: “As a manager, I am required to constantly interact with others every day. When I come home at the end of the day I want nothing more than to sit in silence without the requirement to listen. My wife, however, wants nothing more than to tell me about her day, and so the listening challenge begins. While I have previously heard her talk, I realize now that I have not really listened. I have allowed my needs to get in the way of my ability to be present to what my wife’s thoughts and emotions are.”
There are some simple steps to pull the distraction of multi-tasking out of our conversations. When sharing a conversation with your significant other, find a place, away from distractions, so the ritual of debriefing is the top priority in each others eyes. Finding out what happened in each others day, and how the other person feels about the day requires that you choose a physical space away from the television, video games, computer, music, the mail, cooking, children or other distractions. Make sure you are comfortable. By creating such an environment, deep listening can take place. And DO make the debriefing a ritual! Even if you only have five minutes of uninterrupted time, make it happen at the same time every day.
Now we’ll tackle ‘being present.’ We need to do everything in our power to take the “I” out of listening. When we “suspend self” as the listener, we are able to truly take in the speaker’s message without filtering the incoming content and emotion through our own listening barriers.
Being “present” is a simple concept, yet difficult to achieve. Being present is the act of being in the present moment in our mind and body, not thinking about the past or future, but being in the moment with the person we are listening to. We are not wishing to be somewhere else. Being present means practicing self-control. It means suppressing the urge to convey our own thoughts. It means concentrating on understanding what the other has to say and how she is saying it. We need to stop talking! As difficult as that may be sometimes, not talking can move a conversation forward because the speaker gets a chance to develop and finish a complete thought. It is amazing what we can learn about people’s lives, what motivates them, what they know, and what they are passionate about if we just listen.
Eckhart Tolle says it wonderfully in Stillness Speaks, “Far more important than what you are listening to is the act of listening itself, the space of conscious presence that arises as you listen. That space is a unifying field of awareness in which you meet the other person without the separative barriers created by conceptual thinking. And now the other person is no longer “other.” In that space, you are joined together as one awareness, one consciousness.”
Being present is no easy task. It requires taking our ego out of the conversation and keeping our reactive mind under control. However, the brain is an amazing organ that can be trained and strengthened. In the coming months I encourage you to become aware of when you are present in a conversation and when your mind and listening wanders. When you notice your mind wandering, you can take action by pushing aside your thoughts and get back to listening fully.
As the owner of the consultancy Listen to Succeed, Leslie Shore has worked with corporations, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, health professionals, and educational institutions to up-level their intra-personal and inter-personal communication skills. Her book, Listen to Succeed: How to identify and overcome barriers to effective listening, is currently used in four universities. www.ListenToSucceed.com