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Mindful listening: Weird things to try

November 14, 2016

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Photo: Christian Heilmann (CC)

After an acrimonious election year, we all need a break. Let me suggest a different approach.

Listen better.

When half the country is taken by surprise two presidential elections in a row, it means we’re not really listening well. We hear arguments that bolster our beliefs all too well, at the cost of understanding half of our neighbors. We think we know the score, and then face an ugly awakening.

This lack of listening cripples us in other areas: our personal relationships, our marketing campaigns, our rapport with colleagues, our clients and so on. No matter where we live, no matter where we work, we run into people with different points of view.

We can’t expect others to listen better. We need to work on ourselves.

I continue to practice my listening skills every day, knowing that strengthening it also helps my overall communication skills. I have a few oddball suggestions for interested students to try.

1. Take an improv class. Improvisational comedy isn’t about quick wit. It’s about careful listening. Scene partners rely on each other to build a world from scratch instantly, but those foundations can collapse in a wink.

A master improv performer understands that she must continue where her partner left off. She can try to think ahead, or surrender to the moment, studiously listening and watching what her partner has brought to the game.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve run through the arguments and counterarguments in my head while someone else was talking. I really missed out what they were trying to tell me, because I didn’t want to understand their viewpoint, merely one-up them.

The Positively Funny troupe offers classes in Birmingham.

2. Listen intently in short bursts. A meeting offers the perfect opportunity to go all in: no devices, no doodling, no distractions.

Can we listen to what each person has to contribute? Can we discover how others react to questions, opinions, requests and commands? Can we accurately summarize each colleague’s portion?

I would often get lost in my own thoughts during meetings and very rarely get called on it. I’ve seen plenty of people spend entire meetings and conference calls glued to their phones.

We pay a price for distracted meetings: lack of follow-through; confusion over action steps; poor service for colleagues and customers. Maybe we can’t be perfect listeners 24 hours a day, but how about for 1 hour?

3. Practice yoga. One primary skill in yoga is breathing. Through monitoring our breath, we become one with our bodies (if that makes sense). We listen to what our bodies are telling us: Mine usually tells me that ow my left leg is cramping up!

I know that when I do a better job of listening to my body, my mind and my spirit, I am better prepared to listen to the concerns of others. But if my stomach is rumbling, if my mind is stuck on negative thoughts, my listening suffers.

Yoga is a great way to tap into our noisy inner lives. It might make someone else’s noisy life a little easier.

4. See a therapist. I’m grateful when someone listens to me carefully. Therapy can be cathartic when I have so much I want to unload.

But it’s also a wonderful opportunity to see a pro at work, someone paid to listen to people’s woes. She isn’t taking calls or checking emails or scrolling through social media. She asks questions, watches my expressions, listens to my tone and participates as needed.

Not to mention that therapists can help patients learn listening skills. Marriage counselors guide couples through basic exercises so each one can practice talking less and taking in more.

Many of us are probably not in a listening mood, especially to “the other side.” We harm only ourselves in remaining inert. Who will be the first to reach out and give a warm, sincere listen?

More ways to work on listening skills.

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