Hearing is a sensory experience – waves of energy flowing over our eardrums and lighting up our brains.
Listening involves some action on our part as we try to decode the incoming message.
Mindful listening is deep attentiveness to the moment by moment unfolding of energy and what it all means.
Like most mindfulness practices, it is easier to write about than implement.
Over the last few months, I’ve had lots of opportunities to practice mindful listening. I have been co-facilitating meetings to discuss mental health peer specialist work.[1. A Peer Support Specialist is an individual in recovery from a mental health condition who works with others, providing hope, encouragement, and information on tools for recovery.] As facilitators, our job involved managing the meetings(staying on course, giving everyone a chance to participate, ensuring there was enough coffee – extremely important) and simultaneously listening deeply and recording diverse opinions and ideas.
Listening in a group event is how I imagine surfing. One has to stay on top of the wave of constantly shifting energy. Every moment brings new information and an adjustment of balance. We challenged ourselves to ask each moment:
• What is being said?
• What does it mean?
• Are there deeper meanings?
• Do I need to ask a clarifying question?
• Am I paying attention to how others are responding to what is being said?
And we tried to maintain awareness of the challenges:
• Something is being said that we feel we’ve heard a million times before and we put it in the mental box labeled “heard that before”, cutting off all opportunity to learn something new.
• Something is being said that we don’t want to hear and we put it in the box labeled “don’t agree with that”. We also stop listening and start forming a rebuttal.
• The message causes an emotional reaction and suddenly we are thrown off the surf board by a strong wave of emotions.
• The message gets interrupted by another person, a cell phone, a clap of thunder, a child crying in the other room, and we lose focus.
• And then there is this – even with our whole intent to listen mindfully, the words can trip us up.
Confusion and disagreements happen when we think we hear something because of our own understanding of a word, and yet that is not what is being said at all. When someone says they are in favor of increasing the peer specialist work force does that mean integrating peer specialists throughout the health care system or does it mean adding a few jobs here and there? When someone tells us they have peer specialists working in their organization, does that mean peer specialists have been hired to provide hope and support to others or are they doing clerical work? Listening mindfully often involves asking questions to get at the heart of the message.
My goal for each meeting was to listen as attentively as possible and to discern as many of the nuances in meaning as I could, recognizing from the start that there is no way to do this perfectly. Now I want to incorporate mindful listening into my everyday life, but I know it has to be manageable. Making a sweeping goal to listen more mindfully all day long will fall apart pretty quickly. So I am picking situations each day to practice for short periods of time:
-One particular meeting
-One particular person – especially someone I may not always listen to with full attention
-One particular hour a day
And during that time to consciously be aware of:
-What I am hearing
-What I am reacting to
-And the questions I need to ask to fully understand what is being said
Ultimately listening deeply is an act of connection. We put aside assumptions of what we think is being said and attempt (in our imperfect way) to connect and understand another being in this one moment we share together.