Is there a relationship between effective listening and mindfulness?

What is mindful listening? Mindfulness, in all its many forms, boils down to being fully aware in the moment, without judgment or expectations, with or without a specific object of meditation. Mindful listening incorporates many of these same elements. Some kinds of mindful listening are meditative; others have a more targeted purpose. Some can be practiced solo; others are based on interactions in real time.

Listening meditation

Sound can be used as an object of meditation in the same way that physical sensations or the breath are. We simply settle the mind on a perceived sound—or even an imagined one—in a relaxed and open manner. We can train in maintaining awareness of recorded sounds or sounds in nature, in civilization, or anywhere else. The key is to hear without analyzing, judging, or getting carried away. This is very different from our usual relationship with sound. Normally, there are background sounds we ignore, sounds we tune into and try to identify, sounds we enjoy and search out, and sounds we reject and try to distance ourselves from. Can we maintain awareness of sounds without engaging with them in our habitual way? That’s the matter at hand.

One popular mindful listening exercise that kids appreciate is the bell or gong practice. Here kids are learning to focus in on the meditation object that is sound. Whether in a classroom or at home, we invite them to sit quietly, close their eyes, take a few deep breaths, and settle in. Then we strike a gong, play a singing bowl, ring a resonant bell, or even hit and hold a piano key or chord and ask them to raise a hand when they no longer hear the sound. Continue for a few minutes—you can repeat at different volumes if so desired. This exercise can help shift the mood of a playroom or classroom from energized activity to calm attentiveness.

See our sister article, Mindfulness of Sounds, for more ideas about practicing with sounds.

Mindful listening in interactions and relationships

How often have you noticed that the person you’re talking to is trying to pay attention to, well, everything else at the same time? They’re checking the phone, channel-hopping, adding to the shopping list, whatever. You don’t feel heard, do you? Or maybe you’re the one who’s unable to focus in on the conversation because so many other things are vying for your attention.

In our interactions with others, most of the time we don’t even realize that the mind has wandered. We pull it back, it jumps away, we pull it back… sound familiar? This is exactly what happens when we meditate, too, and it’s why meditation training can be such a huge help in our effective listening and mindful communication. When we devote time to our practice, we begin to realize in a very direct way that we can only truly focus on one thing at a time.

What a mindful listener truly focuses on is what the other person is expressing. The mindful listener is fully aware in the moment, without judgment or expectations, and this sounds a lot simpler than it is. It takes mindful effort to go into a conversation with no other agenda than to listen with complete attention. In a Psychology Today article called Mindful Listening, the art of listening purposefully is linked to empathy. “Instead of maintaining presence, our mind tends to wander, we offer advice, or explain our own perceptions of the matter at hand. Listening mindfully, or receiving with empathy, requires we give others the space to share without interrupting, advising, or correcting them.”

Providing another person with the space they need to express themselves without fear of judgement or unwelcome advice is giving them the gift of your attention and acceptance. It’s what gives mindful listening its meaning. When you really listen, the other person feels they’ve been heard; they trust that you’re not trying to fix their situation or them. You welcome and value them as they are, in the moment.

“The art of listening starts with being free of our self-image. Our self-image won’t vanish, but we see it in perspective, as something we’ve conjured up to protect us from what caused us harm in the past. We have a persona, but we don’t identify with it. We know it’s like a suit of clothes. When we wear it as armor, long after the danger has ceased, we don’t pay attention to our own inner voice or hear the essence conveyed by the voices of others.”

– Cuong Lu, Wait: A Love Letter to Those in Despair

For most of us, this takes training. The basis of the training is mindfulness. And it doesn’t hurt to exercise the mindful listening muscles by setting the stage for conversations where each party can express themselves without interruption. One way to do this is by introducing a subject and ensuring that each participant receives the undivided attention of the others when it’s their turn to speak. The conversation might be about things they feel conflicted about, or grateful for, or memories that evoke strong emotions, whether positive or challenging.

Sometimes you may find that what you’re hearing is distressing, or you’ll disagree, or you’ll really want to speak your piece. There will always be opportunities for you to share your thoughts—later. Breathe. Check in with your physical and emotional reactions, let go, and return to listening. Give the gift of your full attention and you just might find that it’s more than enough.