“…and then, my boss asked me, ‘Oh, you’re leaving early again?’ What did he mean by that?! I stayed late every day last week!”
“Oh, wow. Hey, do you want to meet at 6 for ice cream?”
We have all experienced conversations in which we feel unheard by the other person. Feeling unheard can cause major problems in relationships and is often due to a lack of proper listening. Mindful listening is an essential part of truly understanding others when they share ideas or stories, as well as conveying that understanding to them and helping them feel heard. To strengthen relationships and build better connections with others, mindful listening is a key skill to master in human interactions.
Listening is more than simply hearing. That is, truly understanding what another person is saying involves looking beyond the surface of just their words. A wealth of additional information can be gleaned through an awareness of non-verbal cues, such as body language, facial expression, and eye contact. When listening to someone telling you a story or an idea, pay attention to their non-verbal cues as well as their words. For example, a friend is sharing a story about an argument they had with their roommate. According to the words of the story, everything ended well and the argument was resolved. However, this friend still looks worried or stressed, and keeps looking at the floor during the conversation. From these non-verbal indications, you could infer that this friend may still be harboring some negative feelings about the incident and may be looking for validation of those feelings in your response. Simply responding to the words of the conversation will likely leave the friend feeling unheard. Conversely, paying close attention to the clues in body language can allow you to become more aware of the “real” story, and tailor your response accordingly.
In addition to cultivating an awareness of the ideas being shared by the other person, mindful listening also requires a careful honing of responses within the conversation. Both verbal and non-verbal responses are crucial feedback opportunities in a conversation, and must be chosen mindfully in order to convey to the other person that they have been heard and understood. However, before responses can be adapted according to a conversation, one must become more aware of their own verbal cues, body language, facial expressions, etc. To become a mindful listener, you must master mindful reaction. You need to move your feedback/responses into the conscious realm and become mindful of your verbal and non-verbal cues in the context of a conversation. To practice mindfulness of your feedback, you can ask yourself while listening to someone, “What does my facial expression convey? How does my body language look to the other person? How do my verbal responses during the conversation show that I am listening?” Becoming a mindful listener requires attentiveness not only to the other person, but also to your own thoughts, body, and words.
Along with developing an awareness of your natural feedback tendencies in conversations comes the ability to hone these responses to fit the needs of the person you are listening to. People who share stories or thoughts with others are oftentimes looking for validation. Validation can be as simple as letting the other person feel heard and understood, which becomes possible through mindful listening. In order to validate someone in a conversation, both verbal and non-verbal responses must be adapted to convey that you are listening attentively.
During a conversation, while listening to the other person’s words, make sure to maintain consistent/appropriate eye contact to let them know that you are paying attention. In addition, keep your body language directed towards the other person. That is, do not convey a defensive or aggressive air by crossing your arms, turning away, etc. These body language responses can cause the other person to feel rejected and will definitely not give the impression of mindful listening. Furthermore, facial expressions that mirror the other person’s can validate their emotions and help them to feel better understood. For example, if a friend looks sad while telling you an upsetting story, mirroring this emotion in your own facial expression will cultivate a stronger sense of connection and will help your friend feel heard. Mindful listening involves adjusting facial expressions to convey that you hear and understand the idea(s) behind what the other person is sharing.
In addition to non-verbal feedback, verbal responses are also an essential part of mindful listening. During a conversation, short affirming responses are appropriate and will encourage the other person to continue sharing their story or thoughts. Depending on the context, obviously, phrases such as “Ok”, “I hear that”, “Wow”, “Cool!” etc. can be useful tools during a conversation to keep the flow of listening consistent and to show the other person that you care about what they are sharing. Also, at the end of a person’s statement or story, briefly repeating the main points or feelings back to them can have a great impact on helping them feel heard. One of the chief tools of mindful listening is repeating back to the other person what they shared. The phrase, “Let me make sure I understood you correctly. You mean…” can be a useful lead-in to this follow-up in mindful listening.
Connection is an inherent need of all humans, and feeling understood by another person is one of the cornerstones of real connection. In order to truly pay attention and understand when someone speaks, mindful listening is essential. An awareness of the various layers of the conversation, as well as a customization of responses based on that awareness, are two crucial components of mindful listening.