How to become a better listener

I’m a horrible listener. Like truly horrible.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with me, you’ve probably noticed what I like to call “Squirrel Syndrome”.

You said something that had the effect of a dog seeing a squirrel and then running off to chase it. That’s what happens in my mind when someone gives me an idea or insight.

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Say one thing to me that I find interesting, and my mind goes off in a million directions. I’m lost in thought thinking about what you have just said, instead of listening to you.

I get a glazed over look in my eyes where you can tell I’m no longer paying attention. I already have my reply waiting, and instead of listening I’m already on another tangent.

It’s something that I’ve been aware of for a long time and I’ve tried to take steps to correct. But as we all know, old habits die hard.

One thing that has helped me a lot in this process is meditation. I sincerely believe that meditation has made me a better listener in a variety of ways.

In my meditation practice I focus on my breath>mind wanders>catch my mind wandering>return back to the breath.

This process of catching myself when my mind has wandered off has helped me to develop an awareness of when it happens in my daily life.

It’s helped me to become aware when this happens in the middle of a conversation with someone. It’s helped me to say “Troy you’re lost in thought instead of listening, return to the conversation at hand.”

This simple fact that I am catching myself lost in thought, and then returning back to listening, is already a step in the right direction. It’s already something that has improved my listening.

The next question then became, “Now that I have caught my tendencies to wander off, how can I stay with the conversation longer and prevent myself from getting distracted in the first place?”

In meditation I use my breath as an anchor to the present moment. I use my breath as my tool to remain focused.

I decided to try this while listening. When someone was talking to me, I would try and pay attention to my breath. Instead of allowing my mind to wander off, I would remain present with the person I’m speaking to. I would breathe while listening…if that makes sense.

And it had a wonderful effect!

I find that by paying attention to my breath while someone is speaking to me, it calms down the part of my mind that is searching for a reply. It calms down my analytical brain that wants to dissect and come up with new insights based on what they have said. It calms down my need to say anything at all!

Over time I learned to let go of my need to reply, and instead allowed responses to come and go. By letting go of my reply, I created more space for the person to simply feel listened to and understood.

I genuinely feel that over the last year of trying this habit, I have slowly become a better listener. I still think that I’m shit to begin with, but i’ll take a small step in the right direction, no matter how small it may seem.

Then, this past June I moved to Rio de Janeiro Brazil and started studying Portuguese. Interestingly, these lessons came back into effect.

Once again, the hardest thing for me was listening. It seemed like people spoke too fast and I had no clue what they were saying to me.

To combat this, I got into the habit of asking for clarification. I’d often say something along the lines of, “so you just said x, y, and z…did I understand that properly?”

9/10 times, they will say, NO, I didn’t understand properly, and then re-explain to me.

In English it’s easy to assume that I understood what the person said to me because they said it to me in my native language. But did I really understand what they were trying to express? Did I really see the underlying emotion, or did I just take what they said at face value?

Since coming home from Brazil, I’ve found myself practicing this more in English. When someone says something to me my reply will be, “so are you trying to say that you ________”, and then they will either say “YES that’s exactly what I mean!” or “No, what I actually meant was _______.” I’ve found this to be particularly useful in emotional conversations or in business.

When we ask for clarification like this it shows a genuine desire to understand the person we are speaking to. When we get our clarification correct, the person feels genuinely understood.

I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of us have a hard time expressing our feelings. The way that we say something vs. the way other people interpret it are often miles apart…which leads to misunderstandings and confrontations. By practicing clarifications I’ve learned to dissolve conflict through seeking to understand the emotions of the people I’m speaking with.

In summation, meditation and language learning have helped me to slowly make steps in the right direction of becoming a better listener. The two of them have worked in harmony to instill principles of good listening within me.

I’m grateful for these practices and their ability to have a ripple effect. I’m happy to see that I am slowly becoming a better version of myself, one day at a time, by using these principles and techniques.

I hope they can have a similar effect for you 😃  

Thoughts? Similar experiences? Let me know in the comments below!

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Also published on Medium.

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