Mindful listening

We all know people who only seem to be listening to us in order to jump in at the first opportunity and start telling their own story. Perhaps we even do this ourselves at times? For example, you might be complaining to your friend about your teenage son who is spending far too much time in front of his computer, and your friend interrupts you with,

‘Yes, I know just what you mean, my husband’s sister’s husband’s second cousin had a neighbour whose son was just like that, blah blah, actually, that reminds me a bit of the movie we saw last night, did I tell you we went into the city…’

Just as annoying can be the tendency to give advice, especially if it’s not asked for, or if the other person knows little about your situation. So your friend might say,

‘Oh, that’s easy, what you have to do is get a system where you agree on how much time he is allowed to spend in front of the computer, and then for every minute he spends over that he has to pay you a dollar, and for every minute under he gets a dollar, and so you buy this special software to keep track but you need to physically monitor it as well because these kids often know how to get around the software, so he needs to use his computer in the kitchen, and only when you’re around…’

And you’re looking at your friend and thinking of a hundred reasons why none of this would work in your family.

The art of listening can often get a little lost in our hectic lives. Sometimes there is so much to get done, who has the time to sit down and listen to every long-winded story someone wants to share with you? There is the elderly neighbour who is a bit lonely but repeats herself six times in four minutes. There is your partner who wants you to be interested in some convoluted tale of office politics when it’s the same old saga – you’ve heard it all before. There is your parent who always seems to ring up just as you’re trying to get dinner on the table and who says, when you ask to ring back later, oh no, this won’t take long – but of course it does.

And yet, when we are able to listen to someone with our full attention, without wanting to interrupt with our own story, or give advice, or wishing they’d hurry up and find a more efficient way of speaking, we know we’re offering the other person something truly precious. We can almost sense them relax, feel appreciated, know that they matter. Being listened to produces oxytocin, the feel-good hormone which is associated with particularly strong human bonding, such as during breast-feeding. There is an exercise we teach in the MBSR course where people pair up and take turns telling their partner about a difficult conversation, while their partner listens in silence and then retells the story back. It feels strange to listen while saying nothing at all, and of course in real life we wouldn’t be completely silent while listening mindfully. However, it is an interesting exercise to realise just how much of our listening can be caught up with either wanting to speak ourselves, or else offering unwanted advice. To what extent can we simply allow the other person to say what they’d like to tell us, without charging in with our own agenda?

Weekly practice idea:

Try listening to someone without interrupting with your own story or advice. See if you can relax into the listening, without rushing somewhere else, and notice how this feels for you, and for the other person.

Anja Tanhane