The Mental Muscle Marathon - Challenge #7: CONNECT AND LISTEN

Challenge #7. Connect and listen.

Congratulations Marathoners! You have reached the final hurdle. To end our Mental Muscle Marathon we’re going to flex our brains just a little further today and participate in active listening.

I know that I’ve banged on about the beauty of listening before, but I do truly believe that there is so much about being human that is associated with being properly listened to. Empathy, connection, acceptance – some of the biggest things that us humans are striving for – all start with proper listening.

Effective listening is so much more than just hearing. Hearing (or passive listening) occurs when we simply react to what the other person has said and then try and get your own points across. Active listening is much more attentive and focused.  It requires concentration and the use of other senses, not just the ears. Active listening is about what is being said, and what is left unsaid or only partially said. It’s observing body language and noticing inconsistencies between verbal and non-verbal messages.

On the face of it, the act of listening should be simple. We hear sounds all the time. Continuously. So why then, is hearing easy, but listening less so?

The root of the problem could be described as a kind of cognitive conundrum. We all employ heuristics (mental shortcuts), in our everyday lives to help us navigate the avalanche of information that we need to process in the world around us. In our interactions with us, we employ types of listening short-cuts too. We assume intent or motivation. We formulate our responses and we respond with our own perspective. All before the other person has finished speaking.

“If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.” – Mark Twain.

Active listening is like playing an instrument. It’s a skill that requires practice to develop. But with practice the benefits are numerous:

  • We hear way more. We don’t just hear and react to the words someone says; we hear the meaning and intention behind what someone is saying. This lets us connect with the person on a deeper level.
  • We pay people the respect they deserve. When we actively listen, we show incredible respect for them and in return they might show respect for us.
  • We’ll develop deeper relationships. When we deeply listen to and respect the people we have conversations with, it is much easier to dive deeper into a relationship with them.
  • We work out our attention muscle. Active listening constantly brings our attention back to the conversation we’re having and can have the same effects as mindfulness or meditation.
  • We can avoid misunderstandings.
  • We become a better judge of people.

So with all that in mind, today is the day to share your flex your mental muscle and share the benefits with others.

The challenge is to intentionally listen in at least one conversation today. And because it’s not a simple task (I did entire courses on listening at Uni) here are some strategies to help you through:

  1. Prepare yourself. Try and relax. Focus on the speaker. Put other things out of mind. The human mind is so easily distracted by other thoughts – what’s for lunch, what time do I need to leave, is it going to rain – gently bring yourself back to the conversation and focus on the messages being communicated.
  2. Don’t talk. When somebody else is talking really listen to what they are saying. Don’t interrupt or talk over them or finish their sentences. Just be quiet. When they’ve finished clarify to ensure you have received the message accurately.
  3. Put the speaker at ease. Remember their needs and concerns. Nod or use other words or gestures to encourage them to continue.
  4. Remove distractions. Focus on what is being said. Don’t doodle or shuffle papers or look out the window or pick your fingernails. These behaviours can disrupt the listening process and send messages to the speaker that you are bored or distracted.
  5. Try and look at the issues from the speaker’s perspective. Let go of preconceived ideas. By having an open mindwe can fully empathise with the speaker.
  6. Be patient. A pause, even a long pause, does not necessarily mean that the speaker is finished. Try and get comfortable with silence.
  7. Listen for ideas. Not just words. This might be one of the most difficult aspects of listening – the ability to link together pieces of information to reveal the ideas of others. With proper concentration, letting go of distractions, and focus this becomes easier.
  8. Ask more questions. If you don’t understand, ask more questions. Open-ended ones are particularly helpful.

“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention." – Rachel Naomi Remen



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