Many of us take our ability to listen for granted. We listen to the sound of conversation, music, birdsong, and traffic. Our ability to hear evolved over millions of years and goes all the way back to early fish who used a hair cell to detect changes in water pressure. Over time, special small bones evolved to form the inner ear that mammals, including humans, have today. For animals, ears are useful for sensing danger, communication, and, in some cases, navigating the environment. The ear also provides an important sense of balance. Sound is a wave of vibrations that travel through the air or another medium. Humans can hear frequencies from 20 to 20,000 Hertz, or cycles per second, which varies from one individual to another and declines with age. Some animals like dolphins and bats can hear up to 100,000 Hertz, while elephants can hear sounds as low as 14 Hertz.
Hearing is the raw sense of picking up sounds, while listening occurs when we make sense of and apply meaning as we perceive what we hear. As social animals, our ability to listen, understand and communicate is so important that the frequency range we hear may well have evolved to optimise around the sound of the human voice. So, we have this amazing sense of hearing combined with powerful processing in our brain, which changes sound into meaning.
If only we could simply listen to what other people are saying. As we all know, simply listening can be a bit of a challenge. In a typical conversation, we may be listening to what someone is saying with “half an ear”, while also getting drawn into our own internal dialogue. Interestingly, conscious thinking works by semi-verbalizing in our own heads. For instance, asking, “Where did I put my keys?” causes related thoughts to emerge from memory. In the same way, when people talk through an anecdote, for example, travel problems on holiday, we’ll experience similar anecdotes arising in our own mind. We then experience a strong impulse to share what’s on our mind, before we forget, and the conversation moves on. At other times we get so caught up in our own thoughts, we completely fail to hear what’s being said. This is not helped by the fact that we can listen and process information much faster than someone can speak, which means we tend to anticipate and think ahead. On top of this, adding distracting technology like smartphones into the mix and it’s no wonder that we sometimes feel ignored.
Listening mindfully means:
- Setting the intention to listen mindfully with open awareness and kindness.
- Putting aside your inner dialogue and focusing your attention on the sound of the speaker’s voice and words being said.
- Giving your undivided attention – if your mind wanders, bring your attention back to listening mindfully.
- Removing any obvious distractions like screens and smartphones, if you need to communicate properly.
- Being patient and allowing the other person to finish what they’re saying, without interrupting or jumping to conclusions.
- Using curiosity to really listen – as if your life depended on it.
- Not judging, or imposing limitations on the other person – allowing them to be the full and complex human they really are.
- Noticing your habits and impulses, for instance, wanting to interrupt with your advice, or anecdote.
- Acknowledging any insights or intuitions that emerge through non-verbal communication, as well as your own emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations, without being distracted by them.
There are many benefits of listening mindfully: you build better relationships by connecting with people and bring out the best in them; people feel appreciated, so are happier and more productive; people feel heard, so they work better together, and with greater understanding, the right things get done.
Suggested weekly practice
- When listening to someone try focusing on the sound of their voice and see what happens.
- Notice what’s going on in your own mind when you are listening. For instance, getting ready for what you want to say, rather than listening properly.
- See if you can let go of impatience when listening and bring kindness, openness, and generosity to the other person.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified, and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore your sense of hearing and what it means to listen mindfully.
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