14 Mar Conversation Meditation – The Art Of Mindful Listening
We’ve all been there.
Sitting across the table from someone, trying to have a meaningful conversation, only to have them break eye contact every time their mobile phone dings.
Standing at a party or networking event, trying to learn more about another person, only to have them break eye contact to scan the room for a better conversation.
Walking with a friend, trying to verbally work through a tough situation, only to have them redirect the conversation to their own issues.
It’s frustrating. It’s demoralizing. It sucks.
Worse, it harms the relationship. And let’s be honest. We’ve all done it ourselves – even to the people we care about. While frustrating, it’s not terribly surprising. In the modern world, there are SO many distractions. It’s harder than ever to be fully aware and present with someone.
Research shows that the mere presence of a smartphone on the table dramatically reduces the level of empathic concern between people (even if it’s never picked up!) Another study showed that smartphones can negatively affect closeness, connection and conversation quality, most powerfully when people are talking about personally meaningful topics.
It’s not just technology that harms conversations. We don’t need a constant stream of on-screen notifications to pull our attention out of the moment. Our focus and attention can be yanked from a conversation by judgement, personal agendas and even simple visual distractions (squirrel!)
But it is possible to really tune in and connect with your conversation partner. Listening is a skill that can be developed. There are simple techniques which, if practiced and honed, can dramatically improve the quality of your conversations. One such technique is to tap into a meditation mindset.
There’s a growing body of research that shows the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Increased focus, reduced stress, and boosts to working memory are all side-effects of meditation that can help create high quality conversations.
The basics of mindfulness meditation are simple. You set aside some time to simply sit and focus on the present moment. You’re not striving for eternal calm or enlightenment, you’re just noticing what’s happening around (and in) you. Just pay attention to what’s going on right now – the sounds, the smells and other sensations in and around your body.
Of course, as you do this, your mind will wander and judgements will occur. You’ll think of things in the future (the project you need to finish or what you’ll do tomorrow) or past (a comment someone made to you yesterday.) And instead of just noticing the moment, you’ll likely start to judge it.
For example, upon hearing a kid yelling in the distance, you might automatically be annoyed, wishing that he’s just be quiet. Those distractions from the present moment are normal and natural, and there’s no need to be frustrated by them.
Just bring your attention back to the present moment. In fact, that continual refocusing of the mind isn’t a hindrance to meditation – it is meditation.
Applying the Meditation Mindset to Conversations
A regular meditation practice can yield conversation boosting benefits like increased focus and less stress, but you don’t have to be a disciplined meditator to apply the meditator’s mindset to make your conversations more effective. Here are some suggestions:
1. Be Here Now
First, and perhaps most crucially, simply decide to give the current conversation your full attention. It really is that simple. (Notice that I don’t say that it’s easy, especially given all the potential distractions at work and home.) Take a moment to mentally slow down and bring your attention to the present moment of the conversation. Simply put – be here now.
This present-moment focus is especially important in effective listening. It’s fairly easy to stay in the moment as you are talking, but it’s harder when listening.
Often, listeners hear just a few words and immediately think they know what the other person is trying to say. That sparks their brain to start formulating a response while the speaker is still talking.
That makes it incredibly difficult to actually hear what is being said. Sometimes that’s fine, but often that initial interpretation is influenced by the listener’s personal biases, so it turns out to be a complete misinterpretation, which leads to confusion and a gap in understanding.
2. Minimize Distractions
It’s a lot easier to be here now if now is less complicated. When it’s time to have a talk, put away your phone and close your laptop. Turn off the tv. If possible, go to a quiet and calm location. Your mind has a hard enough time focusing on the present moment as it is. Eliminating distractions helps you tune in to the other person and what they’re saying.
3. Understand Their Needs
It’s a good idea for both people to get on the same page when starting to talk. What are you trying to get out of this conversation? What are the other person’s needs? Do they want your help solving a problem or do they just want to vent for a few minutes. Knowing what they need makes it a lot easier to have a useful talk.
Now that I’m more than 20 years into my relationship with my wife, I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that it’s not always necessary to try to solve problems. As much as I love to be a fixer, it’s not always welcome. That extends beyond the home. When people come to you with a problem, remember that they’re not always looking to you for a solution. They may just need to get it out of their system. The very act of verbalizing often allows people to find their own solution. Sometimes the best thing you can do is listen.
4. Suspend Judgement
We are hard wired for judgement. Our default is to look out for potential threats and treats, so it’s natural that we’d listen with an evaluative mindset. But if your goal is to truly understand the person you’re talking with, it’s important to withhold judgement for a while. Sure, a time will come when evaluation and judgement is necessary, but to really hear what they are saying, you need to push pause on the judgement.
5. Tap into the Power of Silence
You know from experience how good it feels to have someone really listen to you. You feel more connected, understood, and acknowledged. One way to make someone feel that you’re really listening is to allow for a few moments of silence before you reply. This can lead to a few benefits.
First, it gives you time to process what they said so you can give a thoughtful response, instead of a knee jerk reaction.
Secondly, a moment of silence allows the speaker to pause and regroup, then add any other thoughts. It allows them to go deeper. If you really want to deepen a conversation, take a breath before you reply.
No matter how hard you try to focus on the other person, it’s completely normal to lose focus. You’ll think of some other responsibility you’re neglecting; your phone will ring; you’ll be distracted by something (squirrel!) That’s perfectly normal. Don’t get frustrated – just bring your attention back to the present moment of the conversation.
Building Your Listening Skills Won’t Happen Overnight
Just like meditation, listening is a practice. The more you consciously work at it, the better you’ll get, so get to work. The rewards of deeper and more productive conversations are worth it.
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