It’s a rare experience to feel truly heard by another person. More often, the ‘listener’ is mentally rehearsing their own opinions, stories, judgments or advice – and seizing the chance to impart them. It leaves us feeling disconnected and it can intensify conflict that’s already on the boil.
On the other hand, deep listening builds bridges. It creates a powerful space for connection, support and healing.
So here’s an exercise to try sometime. Find a partner – it can be someone you know or don’t know well – and sit opposite each other. Then take turns to talk and listen to each other, following these directions: In the listener role, you just have to listen silently to the other person for five minutes; when you’re the speaker, you can talk for five minutes about any situation that is affecting you.
Sounds fairly simple, right? But actually, it’s surprisingly difficult. I use this exercise in workshops I lead, as it’s a good way to demonstrate some principles of mindful communication. But I’ve learnt that, for most groups, five minutes is more than enough initially. And I warn them beforehand that it might be trickier than it sounds.
When the cue is given for pairs to swap roles or finish, it’s like watching people come up for air after holding their breath under water.
Afterwards, we share some feedback about how it felt to do the exercise. Many say that it was almost impossible to listen silently for that amount of time. They felt compelled to speak, not just because they wanted to share their own views, but also because it seemed necessary to support the speaker with verbal responses.
From the speaker side, people report that they ran out of things to say surprisingly quickly and went blank. Five minutes felt like an eternity, and they sometimes became frustrated and cross.
There’s a general consensus now that the exercise may be simple but it isn’t all that easy.
I listen to the feedback and sympathise, but I also trust the process and encourage the doubters to do likewise. It doesn’t take long for the penny to drop.
BENEFITS OF THIS PRACTICE
Based on my experience of running these workshops, coaching people through relationship issues and learning my own life lessons, I think this exercise is transformative. It can help us to:
- Communicate and connect better with others, e.g. partner, family, friends, colleagues;
- Develop more empathy, compassion and intuition – as well as self-awareness and self-compassion;
- De-clutter our thoughts, bringing more space and peace of mind;
- Process challenging experiences and get in touch with deeper needs and insights.
Just like an exercise routine or a meditation practice, it’s something that we can build into our life for cumulative benefit. I regularly swap practice sessions with friends from my Zen Coaching community, and we will listen or speak uninterrupted for an hour at a time.
THE GRADES OF ‘GOOD LISTENING’
How do we define ‘good listening’ for these purposes? It’s useful to grade it at three levels.
Level 1 listening is where we typically hang out in daily life. You hear someone’s words but they trigger a chain of thoughts in your head. So you’re actually listening more to yourself than the other person. The telltale sign is when someone finishes talking and you immediately respond with your own perspective.
Level 2 listening is when you pay enough attention that you can repeat back someone’s words. So that’s already an improvement. But it’s still listening with the mind or intellect. It can actually block empathy to listen in this way, and it doesn’t yet feel truly connected.
Level 3 listening is when you listen with your whole being and you’re listening to the other person’s whole being too. You hear the depth of their feelings and the core needs underneath what they’re saying. The Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu, described this as true empathy, “a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.” It’s a powerful, intuitive kind of connection, but it actually requires less effort than Level 2 listening. It’s more about relaxing into a deeper awareness.
OTHER GUIDANCE FOR THE LISTENER
- Listen attentively but silently. Resist the urge to say or ask something in response. Don’t prompt the speaker or pull faces to mime what you’re thinking. (You can keep eye contact in a comfortable, friendly way.) Your role is simply to support your partner through your open, allowing presence.
- Enjoy the ease. You don’t have to come up with appropriate or clever comments or solutions. In fact, you’re required not to. There’s no effort to be made, no risk of misunderstandings. Phew!
- Remember, Level 3 listening. See if you can tune in to the essence of your partner as they are speaking: their vulnerability, their self-protection, and the deeper strength and wisdom in their heart.
GUIDANCE FOR THE SPEAKER
This exercise isn’t just about listening. There are also guidelines and lessons for the speaker role.
- What topic feels alive for you right now? It could be something on your mind, a situation you’re struggling with, or something you would like to celebrate. It could simply be how you’re feeling today.
- Cut through the story. You don’t need to entertain your listener or explain all the details for their benefit. This is an opportunity for YOU to explore your experience and feelings, for your own benefit.
- Treat it as a speaking meditation. Slow down, take your time. You don’t need to plan your words or sound articulate. See what arises from the moment. And it’s fine to have periods of silence if you get stuck. One way out is to get curious about how the silence or ‘stuckness’ feels to you.
- Speak from the heart. See if you can drop the social mask we often wear in our interactions. Keep challenging yourself to be as honest, authentic and self-aware as possible.
- Sit opposite your partner and decide who will be talking / listening first.
- Before you begin, it’s good to take a minute of silence together, perhaps with eyes closed, so you can each become more grounded and self-connected. Bring your attention to your breath, without needing to change anything. Feel your feet on the floor and your body weight on the chair. Notice if you have any other strong or subtle sensations in your body.
- The first person speaks and the other person listens (suggested for five minutes at first; the listener can set a timer).
- At the end of the five minutes, it can be helpful to take another moment of silence with eyes closed; notice what you’re feeling now.
- Swap roles: the second person speaks and the other person listens (five minutes).
- Again, take a moment of silence with eyes closed at the end.
- Finally, each take a couple of minutes to share with the other person how it was to do this exercise. What was it like to listen in this way – and be listened to in this way? How did that influence the way you were speaking when you were in that role? What felt difficult? What felt supportive?
- If you like, you can then repeat the exercise with another set of 5-minute swaps, or you can increase the length of time allocated. At the end, be sure to thank each other for the practice and honest sharing. (Remember also to honour the confidentiality of anything that was said during the exercise.)
These are some of the insights you might discover for yourself when you do the exercise. But of course, it’s not a prescription. See what strikes you as interesting or meaningful, and also how these insights evolve as your practice deepens.
Rethinking the role of a good listener: Although it’s tempting to think that good listening requires some active participation (e.g. making encouraging comments or offering another perspective to consider), you may reassess this idea after someone listens to you in a focused, allowing but silent way. It gives you the space to go deeper into your own experience and find your own clarity. Insights can then emerge spontaneously about the reality of the challenge you’re facing and the action you need to take. As a listener, we often help someone the most by not trying to help them, but instead by trusting their process and inner resourcefulness.
Speaking your mind – and your heart: In a similar irony, when we share our thoughts and feelings without trying to be understood by the listener, we may be easier to understand. The difference is that we become more attuned to our own experience, which can give us a natural clarity, fluency and confidence. The dread of off-the-cuff public speaking or handling an inflammatory situation is often defused when we learn to express ourselves with greater presence.
Experiencing reciprocal benefits: Ostensibly, the listener is the one providing a service, holding a space for the speaker to process his/her thoughts and feelings. But as you practice, you will likely find that the benefits are more equally shared. Listening at Level 3 can be deeply nourishing and life-affirming for the listener too. There’s a profound experience of connection and compassion, which ultimately transcends the separate ‘speaker’ and ‘listener’ roles.
Practised regularly over time, this exercise will boost your sense of wellbeing, strengthen your relationships and hone your communication skills. Of course, it can also be called upon during times of particular need – for example, when you’re in conflict with someone or talking past each other in a disjointed way.
It’s increasingly being used in workplaces as well as other community settings. Opening a meeting with a two- or three-minute share from each participant about their current feelings, needs, intentions and concerns can create a more honest, trusting and constructive space for further discussion.
Or you can deploy it as a ‘purposeful pause’ if the group is struggling to come to an agreement or decision: after each person shares fully what’s on their mind, try taking a short break for everyone to move around and find some quiet space for further self-reflection. When the group is reconvened, there has often been a noticeable ‘reset’ effect. The path forward is now clearer and less contested. The simplicity of listening has paved a way to greater ease.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE COACHING SUPPORT WITH CHALLENGES AROUND CONNECTION, COMMUNICATION OR CONFLICT, PLEASE CONTACT ME TO ARRANGE A FREE INTRODUCTORY CHAT.