What Happens When You (Really) Listen

Nothing compares to the satisfaction of being heard and deeply understood.

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Nothing compares to the satisfaction of being heard and deeply understood. Yet, few things happen as often as “misunderstandings”.

It goes like this. A team member calls you, concerned about meeting a client deadline. This reminds you of the time two weeks ago that the team missed the deadline of a major project milestone, almost jeopardizing the contract for the next phase of work. As you check your inbox for an important email you are expecting to receive, your response is already forming in your head. You cut them off before they’re done talking and tell them to prioritize the deadline above all else. Your team member hangs up dejected–they weren’t looking for the answer, they had a solution they wanted to share.

On the individual level, poor listening decreases engagement, commitment, and sense of purpose at work. For an organization, it can bury innovative ideas before they’re shared, and negate the effects of recruiting diverse teams by silencing perspectives. Listening is fundamental to creating an inclusive workplace–without it, an organization compromises the uniqueness and potential of all its employees.

While most of us want to be understood, we rarely try to improve our own listening abilities. We think we’re listening, but most of our mental bandwidth is taken up by crafting our next response. We’re missing key information, body language signals, and a chance to truly understand the problem and perspectives at hand. We need to learn to listen mindfully. The best part is–it doesn’t take additional time. Our days are already filled with meetings and other opportunities to really tune in.

4 steps to listen mindfully

1. Minimize distraction: Close your laptop, turn off your devices, and find a quiet place. Mindful listening starts by minimizing distractions so you can focus your attention on the conversation.

2. Stop talking: When we alleviate the pressure on ourselves to immediately respond to all issues, we create space to fully observe the speaker. You may not even notice how often you feel the urge to chime in. Experiment with withholding your response until the speaker has completely shared their opinion.

3. Ask clarifying questions: Before you move on to solutioning, deeply explore the topic by asking questions. This isn’t a chance to challenge every detail of the speaker, it’s an opportunity to encourage them to fully articulate their perspective.

4. Reflect on what would be of service: In that moment, what’s the single most helpful action you can take? Sometimes it’s a to-do, sometimes it’s tabling the conversation until a later time. Maybe they need to be connected to someone else. Maybe they just need to be heard.

It might help to think of mindful listening as a gift. When people come to us, we often assume they want answers or advice. The greatest gift we can give them is the space to speak and truly be heard.

Learn how mindfulness can help address stress with the Managing your relationship with stress infographic. 

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