Mental Health Healing Man

Listening: The Art of Truly Being Present with Someone

Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens. — Jimi Hendrix

Think about this question: in our technology-heavy, social-media saturated world, how much do you really listen to someone in a face-to-face conversation? Listening is rapidly becoming a lost art, and yet it is one of the most critical things we do to learn important information about the world around us. Unlike an instant-message conversation, the words another person speaks exist for only a moment…and then they are gone. We cannot go back later and “read” what the other person said.
Staying in the present moment is one of the most important things you can do to truly listen. When you are really “there,” you are listening deeply to both the words and the unspoken messages of tone, facial expressions, and nonverbal language. You can respond more thoughtfully when you are really listening to the other person.

  • Have you ever finished a conversation and realized that you could not remember most of what the other person said
  • Do you find your mind drifting in and out of a conversation?
  • Do you find yourself latching on to certain words and phrases while ignoring others?

If so, you are not alone! It is more difficult than ever before to stay present and sustain your attention by listening to another person. It is also enlightening, insightful, and can open up possibilities that partial listening can not accomplish.

Hearing and Listening are Two Different Things

We often interchange the two terms; however, there is a distinct difference between hearing someone and listening to them. When we hear something (a voice, a siren, or any stimulus through our ears) we are accomplishing the physical act of hearing. Incoming sound waves travel through our ears until they reach the ear drum, and then (cool science fact here) hair cells change these vibrations to electrical signals that are received and interpreted as sounds by the brain.
When we listen, we give our attention to what we hear. We assign meaning and value to what our brain perceives. For example, when you hear the doorbell ring, your ear does its job and passes the sound stimuli to the brain. Once there, however, your brain says to you, “Doorbell!” and then you add context to the sound. Depending on the situation, you could assign any number of meanings and possibilities to the doorbell’s chime. Perhaps your best friend has arrived for a visit; perhaps you are not expecting anyone and apprehensive about opening your door at midnight; or perhaps the doorbell signals your child wants to come inside (for the tenth time in an hour).
The same holds true in a conversation. If you are hearing what someone says, you register tone, pitch, and speed of speech. If all you are doing is listening when your mind is elsewhere, you will never get beyond the physical act of hearing to know what the other person has said. If, however, you are listening and staying present, you are giving your attention to the other person’s words, meanings, and nonverbal cues.

3 Ways to Truly Listen

1. Set the intention to not only contribute, but also to receive. That means you allow the other person’s words and meaning to “sink in” and give you greater meaning. People who only listen to jump in and make their point are only paying attention to their inner dialog; they are not listening to the other person.

2. Practice patience. Know when it is important to wait until the other person reaches a natural pause, and then wait. Often we hijack the conversation simply because we have lost our patience. Notice when this happens inside you, and practice patience. Remember, the conversation is not only about you.

3. Resist the urge to finish someone’s thought or interrupt. This goes along with practicing patience. When we assume that we know what the other person is going to say — and jump in to finish — we are not truly listening. The same goes with interrupting. Interrupting says, “Your thoughts and your involvement in this conversation are not important.” In some cases, it even says, “You are not important.” If you’ve ever been interrupted or someone has finished your thought, you know the feeling. It is perfectly acceptable to ask for clarification if you need more, or to “piggyback” on to what the other person has said…when they have reached their natural pause.
Staying present and really listening to another person is a true gift. It shows you honor and respect the other. He or she feels valued, seen, and heard. By truly listening, your presence can add up to much more than just a conversation.