Too often we think of listening as waiting for the other person to stop talking so we can get our opinion, feelings, or thoughts expressed. Although this is a common habit, with your willingness and steady practice you can develop the very fundamental skill of listening into a true art form, one that conveys compassion for the other. Here I offer three simple steps to work with: Hearing, Absorbing, and Reflecting.
HEARING— Did you ever notice what happens when your attention is drawn to an unusual sound? Your ears perk up, your eyes focus, and perhaps even your breathing may pause momentarily. It’s as if all your senses are directed to identifying that sound. This type of attentiveness and focus is what is required to actually hear what the other person is saying. Not just the word content, but voice tone and non-verbal behavior as well. It means you are fully present and not letting your mind drift to distracting thoughts about the past or future. It means that you are paying attention, putting your self-righteous judgments aside for the moment, having your heart and mind open to what the other is saying, regardless of agreement or disagreement.
ABSORBING— Just like a sponge absorbs water, so you can absorb not only the content but also the intent of what the other person is saying. To do so, you must be open to a different kind of listening: to your own senses, how you react and respond in your body to what is being said. I find it helpful to maintain as much as possible a relaxed, fuller breathing pattern in order to continually notice how your body is responding to the interaction. Too often we are cut off from the physical sensations, which give some indication of a more “felt” sense of what is transpiring in the communication. Conscious breathing more readily allows what the other person is saying to “sink in.” This also calls for us to take a little more time in our communication, which is something many today have a difficult time with.
REFLECTING— Once you have heard and absorbed what the other is saying, to become an active participant in the process, it is often helpful to reflect back in words what the other person is saying. This is typically done in one of two ways. Either you succinctly summarize by paraphrasing the content of what you think the other person is saying, or you paraphrasing feeling plus meaning, e.g. “You feel angry because you didn’t get the job.“ Not only does reflecting make the other person know that you are hearing them, it is helpful in clarifying the meaning of what the other person is saying.