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Why mindful listening is a communication super power

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President Roosevelt was in the receiving line at the White House one evening and, as a joke, shook the hands of visitors and said smiling, “Welcome to the White House, I killed my grandmother this morning.”

Sarah Colantonio
Sarah Colantonio - ()

The visitors nodded, shook his hand, apparently unfazed by the “confession.” At last, a visitor equally precocious to the president took his hand and said with a smirk, “I’m sure she deserved it.”

In conference rooms across the country, people are engaged in the high-skilled art of pseudo-listening. We’ve all done it. Somebody in the front of the room is extolling the convoluted meaning behind a graph or client or idea, and we are frowning at them as if listening intently and yet we’re in our own world, thinking about our own idea, estimating the time until lunch, worrying about the next meeting, whatever the case may be.

What do we miss by not listening? The chance to understand another person. The chance to connect. The ability to be a better decision-maker and problem solver. Research consistently shows that mindful listeners have better interpersonal relationships, tend to get paid more and are promoted more often. Mindful listeners are seen as more likeable, more attractive and smarter. Of course they are. Close your eyes and recall the last time someone truly listened to you. Feels fantastic, doesn’t it?

We often move in the opposite direction to get others to respect us, think we’re smart, admire us. Brandon, the Humans of New York creator, once reflected, “When I was younger, I thought listening was just about learning the contents of someone’s mind. I’d always try to finish their thoughts just to show them that I knew what they were thinking. As I got older, I learned to listen better. I realized that by trying to anticipate their mind, I was ignoring their heart.”

It’s not your fault if you’re a poor listener. We aren’t taught to listen as much as speaking or writing. Listening was a quick aside in communication class back in college. We do not focus on it as a part of our communication skill set.

How can we adopt this super power?

Kevin Sharer, a biotech CEO, shares how he started his career in his 30s as a horrible listener focused on “intellectual winning.” Sharer said that his communication was 90 percent telling and 10 percent listening. He realized not only did it need to be closer to 50-50, he also needed a certain amount of humility to listen mindfully. Sharer acknowledges that most of us know it’s important to listen and that it’s valuable but that it is often “more lip service than conviction. Listening can be learned but to change your behavior on any important dimension, you’ve got to have deep self-awareness. You have to change and you have to want to change.”

For the next week, pay attention to your listening habits. Don’t try to change anything, simply notice. When someone is talking to you, are you listening to them or are you planning what you are going to say? If it’s someone you don’t particularly like, do you silently judge them while they talk to you? Are you tired, impatient, busy, distracted, planning, defensive or otherwise not present in a situation where you are called to listen?

Next, take notice when you do really listen. Pay attention to the circumstances surrounding that. Do you find this person compelling? Are they a great story teller? Passionate? Funny? Knowledgeable? Attractive? Are you well-rested, feeling good, ready and eager to listen, or otherwise invested in the present situation where you are called to listen?

Finally, be curious. This might require developing a new mindset to being in a conversation with another person. Radio interviewer Celeste Headlee admonishes the audience in her 2015 TED talk to treat everyone like they have some yet-undiscovered, fascinating thing about them. We are naturally curious creatures. Take advantage of that. When you are in a conversation with someone, treat it like an unveiling of who this person truly is. Look for what is unique about them. Try to figure out what their super power is. Treat it like a mission.

Integrating the practice of listening into your everyday life can transform your relationship with yourself and others. It can lead to greater success in your work and home life. We need this. According to writer, Maria Popova, “If there is any hope for us, it lies in ... reclaiming ourselves as a listening species.”

Sarah Colantonio works at Work Wisdom LLC, a consulting firm in Lancaster County. Her focus is on communication and mindfulness in the workplace. She can be reached at sarah@workwisdomllc.com.

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