One of the main reasons we listen poorly is because our internal noise levels are so turbulent and obtrusive that they mask most of what others are saying. Only bits and pieces of their message survive the barrage of our mental interference. Just as we have learned to manage external interference by tuning out, it has become somewhat of a challenge to tune in deeply enough to the messages we need to listen to -- those of family, coworkers, and customers. Misunderstanding, not being heard, and missing key information due to poor listening are at the crux of societal ills.
Traditional approaches to listening improvement are usually ineffective because they come from a point of view of altering surface features instead of reshaping the foundation. If we are to end the suffering associated with not listening, we need to dig deeper to get to the source so change can take place.
Good Listening is Essential for Success, But How Does One Listen Effectively?
Many self-help books on personal relationships, negotiation, sales, and customer service tell us that good listening is essential to success in our personal and professional lives, but they do not explain how to listen. The available how-to approaches to better listening give you lists of new ways to behave, as if by magic you master techniques and stick with them. Just like after most self-improvement courses, you may try to force new behaviors for a few days, but gradually, because there is no foundation for these changes, your old tendencies to tune people out and repeat mistakes creep back.
As a speech/language pathologist for twenty years, I worked with adults with impaired ability to communicate due to stroke, head/neck cancer, head injuries, or degenerative diseases. By my late thirties, I was starting to show the classic signs of burnout. Even my relationships with family were suffering. External amusements such as trendy activities, shopping, money-making endeavors, and competitive sports with the objective of winning became appealing to me. I had become vulnerable to impulsivity, excessive goal setting, accumulation of material things, competitiveness in sports, and advising my siblings instead of just being a good sister -- attitudes and behaviors that disconnected me from myself and others. Despite all these self-inflating intentions, there I lay exhausted and unfulfilled after a day of trying to make myself a better person.
A Voyage of Self-Discovery: From Malaise to Inner Peace and Creativity
Seeking out new career opportunities held promise as a cure for my general malaise, but I had reservations. As many of you have already experienced, financial constraints tempered my impulse to make drastic changes. Instead, my intuition advised me to take a deeper look into myself and the way I related to others before abandoning a life's work for which my talent and personality were well suited. A major rethinking was necessary. I decided that it was worth going on a personal archeological dig to figure out what to do about my situation.
When I was a college student in the seventies, Transcendental Meditation had become a vehicle of self-discovery and a discipline that brought welcome clarity to eighteen credit hours of graduate work and two part-time jobs. Now, once again I began daily meditation. This enabled me to calm my mind and identify the inner obstacles that kept me from working with the system instead of against it.
During this renewal phase, I met my husband, Sasha. Aside from his job as a computer engineer, he was a third-degree black-belt martial arts instructor. Watching him, his students, and other instructors practicing various martial arts, I was mesmerized by their concentration and physical control. I admired their balanced state of mind and lack of self-consciousness in daily situations. These people were not monks or part of some spiritual cult, nor was their discipline violent or destructive. They were regular people, who owned businesses or were leaders in their communities. They too faced the same threats of layoff, crazy work schedules, and limited budgets, yet they were at peace with change and used their resources to find creative solutions.
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How Does One Attain Concentration, Connectedness, and Serenity of Spirit?
After getting to know these people better, I asked myself, Is the physical exertion of karate or kung fu the source of this concentration and serenity of spirit? Or is it the focus on quality of movement that improves the ability to attend completely and joyfully to the task at hand? I believed it was the latter, since I had also observed this mind-body balance in artists, musicians, surgeons, and athletes. While painting, playing, dissecting, or diving, they were all willfully caught in the flow of their activities.
Looking back over the years, I recalled several such exhilarating periods of concentrated energy prior to my current burnout period. Many were memorable listening situations. I remember in college being totally absorbed physically and mentally in certain lectures, during medical rounds in my hospital training, or while being critiqued by someone whose opinion I highly valued. I recalled these moments of physical and mental readiness as a relaxed, balanced state, a connectedness between my mind and body. My next question was, What if this zeal for quality and depth of concentration could be applied to one of our greatest needs, a gift so little used and so often taken for granted -- the ability to listen?
In my search to regain and perpetuate this feeling of connectedness, I enrolled in a martial arts class and studied everything I could find about the mind-body relationship. By getting to know myself painfully through the eyes of my instructors, my reasons for becoming disconnected from my world were made clear. I decided to start over fresh, not by focusing on the results or the outcome of my actions, but with the prospect of being in the moment and discovering the quality in every interaction.
Opening Up the Walls of Routine & Learning to Listen
I started to apply this new awareness to what occupied the bulk of my day -- my work as a therapist. First, during this period of self-awareness, I noticed that when I interacted with patients and coworkers, I became distracted by my own agenda. Assumptions and periods of selective listening led me to miss valuable information.
I had become closed within the walls of my routine protocols. In my eagerness to treat the patient, I found myself lecturing patients and their families much too often and asking way too many questions. If they did not comply with my recommendations or the advice of their physicians, I judged them quickly, dismissing their reasons for not following through. I could see how much time was wasted in reinforcing practice, re-explaining, and revising treatment plans. What was at the heart of all this redoing? By not fully listening to the patient or to my own spoken words, I was actually making more work for myself and stalling progress.
Because of my egocentric way of trying to help my patients, it was no wonder why I, and so many others, left the office exhausted and frustrated most days. I remembered the words of a favorite professor in graduate school that pointed to the importance of listening in a learning situation: "If you do not get to know where that patient is coming from (his background, expectations, etc.) you cannot understand him, and he will not trust your advice."
I have had the pleasure of working with many physicians who have taught me the true meaning of the expression "bedside manner". With other doctors, however, I have seen how failure to listen to the patient adversely affects the accuracy of the diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Too often the patient is not given a chance to mention what's on his mind, to share his insight into his health problem. Just as often, due to various communication barriers, a patient does not understand his doctor's explanation of his illness.
Not only good medical practice, but any successful business requires optimal listening on both sides of the table. In all industries and, most importantly, in the home, a good bedside manner is the best medicine for solving disputes and getting along with others. Whether we are salespeople, parents, or provide some service, people come to us in need. Quite often they require assistance or are in distress, very much like someone who is ill or dying. They look to trust us in the same way that a patient looks to trust the judgment of a physician. We can all benefit from improving our bedside manner. It does not necessarily mean taking more time, but rather more willingness to see a situation through the eyes of the speaker. How can we achieve a positive outcome with each person we come in contact with if our scope is narrowed by self-interest?
Listening: A Powerful Tool of Change
From a spiritual and social point of view, listening can be a powerful tool of change. Schoolteachers and counselors, prior to taking my listening class, report their jobs are getting more stressful because they cannot handle the listening needs of their students and clients. If children are not heard by their parents, if their emotional concerns are not taken seriously, they become behavioral problems at home and in the classroom. Hours of TV and video games splinter whatever remains of attention and concentration for schoolwork, and grades suffer. A lack of proper listening role models may lead to frustration, violent outbursts, and loss of self-control. Poor self-esteem cultivated over time leads to substandard performance in the workplace and unhappy family relationships as the ravages of poor listening are handed down to the next generation.
When a person is given a chance to tell his views without the threat of judgment or advice, even if his listener does not agree, that is the first step toward creating good feelings. A sense of openness on both sides allows for discussion and problem solving. Self-esteem grows from the respect that comes from being heard. People are better able to attend to school lessons, projects, and the responsibilities of the workplace when basic emotional needs, like being understood, have been met. Henry David Thoreau said, "The greatest compliment that was ever paid to me was when someone asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer." When confidence grows, we are better able to discover our potential and positively influence others. Mindful listening has the power to change the direction of our lives and those we come in contact with every day.
Listening: It's Good for You and For Others Too!
Listening is also a healthy activity. Studies show that when we listen, heart rate and oxygen consumption are reduced and blood pressure decreases. Contact with others promotes well-being and self-expression, both necessary for good physical health. By being good listeners, therefore, we promote the good health of others by allowing them to reduce their stress and empowering them to solve their own dilemmas. An empathetic listener provides helpful feedback that makes the speaker feel valued. This is a significant gift in a world where the human touch is a rare commodity.
Many of us would like to see an end to discrimination of all kinds, happier families, and a safer, more harmonious future for our children. But how can we as individuals make a difference? We can begin by learning to listen in a mindful way.
Listening is the first step in making people feel valued. Mindful listening allows us to do more than take in people's words; it helps us better understand the how and why of their views. When understanding occurs, a sense of calm is achieved on both sides, even if no point of agreement is reached. From understanding, respect and trust for one another are possible; we are free to open our minds and widen the scope of potential solutions. Listening is also the first step in any negotiation, whether it means getting your teenager to clean the garage or arranging a cease-fire in the Middle East.
Listening: A Tool for Mindful Change
On New Year's Eve 1999, Larry King, on his nightly TV talk show, invited eminent spiritual leaders to share their hopes for the Third Millennium. The Dalai Lama looks to the twenty-first century as the "century of dialogue". Evangelist Billy Graham claims that "world peace can come only from the human heart. Something has to happen inside of man to change our attitude."
How do we start changing our attitudes? By listening in a mindful way and becoming aware of what habits we can change today and what habits need to change over time. Sometimes all it takes is someone or something to come our way to make us stop and think about the need to be heard. By taking the ideas in this book to heart, not only will you accomplish more through communicating effectively, but you can begin to make a daily personal contribution to world peace.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Quest Books,
The Theosophical Publishing House. ©2000, 2003. http://www.theosophical.org
The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction
by Rebecca Z. Shafir.
Readers will be amazed at how simply learning to focus intently on a speaker improves the relationship, increases attention span, and helps develop negotiating skills. Learn the great barricades of misunderstanding, find out how to listen to ourselves, discover how to listen under stress, and boost our memory. This is a fun and practical guide filled with simple strategies to use immediately to enjoy our personal and professional lives to the fullest.
Info/Order this book. Also available as an audiobook, a Kindle edition, and a hardcover.
About the Author
REBECCA Z. SHAFIR, M.A., CCC, is a certified speech/language pathologist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. A ten-year student of Zen, she teaches communication workshops nationwide and has coached media personalities and political candidates since 1980. She presents a variety of programs ranging from keynote addresses to weeklong seminars tailored to meet the individual needs of corporations, healthcare institutions, professional associations, universities, and the general public. For more information or to share your experiences with mindful listening, send your letters to: Rebecca Z. Shafir P.O. Box 190 Winchester, MA 01890. Visit her website: www.mindfulcommunication.com.