Listening: You might not be listening as well as you think you do

I never used to think I had an issue with listening. This was despite being told to the contrary by those around me on many occasions. I believed that I was an average listener and whilst I couldn’t always recite a conversation verbatim, I also wasn’t clueless.

During my journey around self development, the topic of listening has been raised numerous times. Recently I decided to focus on this area and explore what it would mean to be a truly great listener. I was curious about what I would need to do and how that would impact my relationships.

Following a recent conversation with a friend, I glimpsed some truths for myself that I wanted to share. In essence, I realised how poorly I paid attention to people when speaking to them.

Who doesn’t love talking about their holidays?

During an otherwise ordinary conversation with a friend, she informed me she was planning a trip to New Orleans. My mind was off as soon as I heard the destination. I’ve previously visited New Orleans and my mind started reliving those memories.

How often does your mind wander when talking to someone?
How often does your mind wander when talking to someone?

I started thinking of questions I wanted to ask her such as:

  1. How long are you going to go for?
  2. Where are you going to stay?
  3. You’re going to check out the French Quarter right?
  4. Will you be having that famous New Orleans snack? I couldn’t remember at the time that they are called Beignets.

It was amusing then, that after discussing her travelling options for the trip our conversation moved on to something completely different. My questions went unasked and I never got to share the stories I had wanted to.

The next day I was thinking back to this conversation when I had an insight. I had not really been listening to my friend. As soon as she mentioned New Orleans my mind started to wonder and I was off in my own little world. I became more focused on my internal dialogue so was not present in the moment with her. She was talking about the decision between flights or driving and I was thinking about Beignets…

How that insight changed things for me

This insight got me curious and it’s been at the forefront of my mind for the last week. In the last couple of days I met up with another old friend whom I’ve known for years. We had not seen each other for a long time so were overdue a good catch up. During the course of the evening I noticed was naturally more present with her. As she spoke, I just listened. There was a lot less mental activity going on in my head; what thoughts I had, I chose to ignore so I could just listen to her. From that place, I didn’t try to interrupt her to get my word in and I didn’t want to either.

What would happen if you truly listened to someone without all the mental activity going on in your head?
What would happen if you truly listened to someone without all the mental activity going on in your head?

What unfolded over the next few hours amazed me. There was a deeper sense of connection between us than I ever felt before. Without those mental distractions and given this deeper sense of connection, we both felt more able to open up with each other. We discussed topics that might otherwise have been left unsaid or been prohibited because previously I was more focused on making my viewpoint heard. Whilst I could sense the shift in myself, I was surprising when she commented on it too.

What this means for me

Previously I thought the answer to better listening was more focus or concentration. That seemed like a lot of effort and something else I had to add to my already busy plate. At the point I had my insight around listening, something changed inside me. Rather than just intellectually knowing that better listening leads to better relationships, I got a deeper sense of this truth. I saw that I didn’t need to add anything, but that I could instead remove mental distraction. The clarity I got from a clear head was not achieved by trying to do more and more.

The result for me has already been profound. Where I could previously follow along with a conversation, now I’m much more engaged. I can remember times when I would be listening to the words but being told I’m not hearing what the other person was trying to convey. Now I’m much more deeply present in my conversations and I’m finding this is leading to completely different level of discussion.

Final thoughts

I’ve spoken in my previous articles (click here) about not needing to take thoughts so seriously. This was the building block that enabled this latest insight around listening for me. I didn’t see how distracted I was by own mental landscape on a day to day basis. This left me unable to truly listen to those around me and affected my ability to have deeper relationships.

Reflecting this back for yourself, what is it that you often find yourself thinking about? Could it be work deadlines, TV show plot lines or comparison thoughts to those you perceive as more successful than yourself? If you can see how unproductive these thoughts are, they will naturally fall away for you. I’ve found this to be true for myself and I know it can be true for you too. How would your relationship with someone change if you truly listened to them and not your thoughts?

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