There is a distinct difference between hearing and listening. By the book, hearing is defined as “the act of receiving sound or information by the ear.” While listening is defined as “the act of paying attention to sound, hearing something with thoughtful attention, or paying attention to someone or something in order to hear and understand what is being said, sung, or played.” This second definition does a beautiful job of describing many aspects of mindful listening; the most important component being that it focuses on listening with one’s complete attention.
When you are really listening to someone, you are hearing him/her. But when you are hearing something or someone, you are not always listening. Book definitions aside, let’s take a look at the experience of listening versus the experience of hearing …
Listening requires 100 percent focus on the person who is talking. It’s being with them in what they are saying, and taking in their words and emotions through all of your senses. Listening is hearing with every part of you. Think of a time you were talking with a friend, spouse, or therapist about an important situation in your life, and when the conversation was over you felt lighter, loved, and cared for. This is likely because they were with you fully. True listening is not as easy as it sounds.
When you hear something, you recognize a sound, but don’t necessarily comprehend or register its meaning. Think of a knock at the door or the TV on in the background while you’re cooking dinner.
Why We Don’t Listen
True listening is a lot of work. After all, it requires 100 percent of our attention, and we are trained to multi-task. Cooking dinner while helping the kids with homework. Watching TV while working out. Responding to emails while on the phone. It’s tough to focus on just one thing at a time, and life circumstances don’t always encourage this. Often when we’re in listening mode, we’re also in to-do-list-mode, doing laundry, or getting ready for the next task. This doesn’t mean we aren’t hearing what’s being said. It just means we aren’t fully present.
When we’re truly listening to someone, we are holding space so the person can express whatever thoughts and feelings they want to share. We are inviting that information into our space and holding it open for them to feel welcomed, comfortable, at peace, and in loving company.
For some people, this is natural and effortless. For others, it’s a muscle that will need to be worked, practiced, and improved.
Mindful Listening as a Practice
Meditation is a practice that trains the mind to focus … and trains the mind, body, and emotions to be still and present with whatever comes up. And it does require practice.
Just like in sitting meditation you sit with whatever comes up, when you’re listening to someone … consider it a practice, too. Be with whomever you’re with—don’t just receive the information—fully listen to them. Invite whatever they say to the conversation to encourage them to open up further. Try to feel what they’re feeling, relate, and understand. This is the practice of true listening.
Simple Practice: 5 Steps to Turn Listening into a Mindful Practice
Next time you find yourself in the role of the listener, practice mindful listening. Follow these five steps to tune into the person you are listening to and see how it feels.
- Focus on the person talking. Try to tune out other distractions—turn off your cell phone ringer, email notifications and TV—in order to fully focus on the person you’re talking to. Try to keep your mind focused on the person talking … just like in sitting meditation, when you notice your mind wandering, bring it back to the conversation.
- Be present. Nothing is worse than having to ask someone to repeat themselves when you should have been listening. Be present completely, and tune out thoughts about the past, future or anything irrelevant to the conversation.
- Welcome whatever comes up in the moment. Whether you agree with what is being said or not, invite the thoughts and emotions the person you’re with is expressing. Welcoming the other person’s words does not mean you agree or validate, it just means you are being there for them to express themselves. This includes offering facial expressions and body language that are neutral and warm. Try not to react to what they’re saying too much with your voice, body or face. Just be with them in a loving, present, inviting way.
- Hold your tongue. If you are in the listener role, just be there. There will be time for you to share your thoughts, offer advice, and share stories. But for now, when they are talking and you are listening, just hold the space for them and save your commentary for later. This may require patience.
- Learn. Take it all in and try to truly understand. Learning will require all of the above steps. If you’re not present or focused, you could miss something, misinterpret, or misunderstand. You could also risk that the person you’re with will feel ignored or not heard. And you’ll likely be asked for your opinion or invited to share your thoughts at some point … you’ll be able to do this with much more care if you truly understand the message delivered to you.
Plus, when you learn about someone, it brings you closer to them and builds a stronger connection. That’s why we talk to one another in the first place—to connect. So why engage in conversation if we aren’t truly connecting or listening to one another?
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As an ICF Certified Executive Coach, Melissa partners with leaders to develop their executive presence, strategic and systems thinking, resilience, communication skills, and influence in order to reach their goals. Melissa is passionate about supporting leaders and teams on their growth journeys toward greater impact, more collaborative teams, and stronger results.