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Musings for the Modern Mystic

deep listening

Deep Listening: What It Is And How To Do It

It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes Share on X

Deep listening. It’s a term (and practice) very few people know anything about. Yet if one can train themselves to learn this powerful and ancient technique of mindfulness (it has been around for millennia and is part and parcel of buddhist practices across the world), a whole new level of comprehension, understanding and wisdom will slowly be revealed.

Before we even get into the topic of deep listening, however, let’s first address the simple act of listening itself. It’s safe to say that listening — just simple listening — is becoming a lost art. Easily one of the most (if not the most) important communication skills anyone can have, the majority of us have become noticeably worse at it since our smart phones got so much better at it.

Not that we were all that skilled at listening to begin with, but over the last decade or so, the general distraction factor of the populace as a whole has gotten, well, very distracting. So much so that it’s become a frequent topic of conversation — if only people were actually listening to us…  

But I digress.

The problem, you see, is built right into the word itself:

'Listen' is composed of the same letters as 'Silent'. Share on X

And it’s this inability to actually remain totally (internally) silent that lies at the root of the problem. How many times have you engaged someone in a serious conversation only to realize that they were ‘hearing’ but not actually listening? If you yourself are a good listener (and hence a good communicator) you’ve probably experienced this. You possess the ability to differentiate between the two.

To break it down, ‘hearing’ happens by default when the eardrum perceives any sound. ‘Listening’, on the other hand, is mindful, purposeful, and when perfected, done without value judgments attached.

This is deep listening.

“Do your best to practice compassionate listening. Do not listen for the sole purpose of judging, criticizing or analyzing. Listen to help the other person express himself, but also find some relief from his suffering.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

It is a powerful and selfless form of listening that involves being holistically present in a conversation. And by ‘holistically’ I mean hanging up your judgmental coat, silencing the inner noise in your head, remaining open-minded, and catching the underlying stream of consciousness that is dictating the words being spoken.

While a shallow listener will often be impatient, holding their upcoming response in their mind with a nagging sense of urgency, the other end of the spectrum finds a deep listener able to comprehend not only what’s being said, but the speaker themselves on a number of different levels — mentally, emotionally and psychologically.  

As mentioned earlier, the main culprit here is distraction. Modern culture is very distracting, and it has created a populace of distracted people. Physically, most of us are present, but our attention is often off in Buenos Aires. 

With this in mind, here are 7 techniques you can use to gradually nurture the art of deep listening...

1) Mindfulness

As mentioned earlier, it’s quite a common condition in our society to be physically present, but with a mind that is anything but. Being mindfully present entails being aware of your thoughts, emotions and environment simultaneously. To be mindfully present in a conversation, one brings this level of awareness to the person speaking.

Of course, it is a practice, and it takes time, just like the development of any skill. But you’ll know you’re getting it when the words and sentences begin becoming secondary to the flow of consciousness that is creating them.

Thus, a continued and devoted practice may eventually bring you to a place of understanding the speaker on a number of levels, the strongest being an empathetic one (see point number 3). This is the space where the fruits of deep listening come to ripen, leading to deep comprehension.

2) Meditation

There is power in setting aside a few minutes of your time, daily, to de-clutter your mind. Learning how to come back to yourself, alone, will enhance your ability to bring your presence more fully to another in day to day life as well. It will also greatly enhance your powers of concentration, which are integral to proper deep listening.

3) Empathy and Interest

Something as simple as a slight nod to a speaker gives the affirmation that you are concentrating and interested in their talk. So too does maintaining eye contact and showing genuine interest. This is empathy, and it is the result of the first two points on this list.

When people see that you are really listening, they will open up in ways they may not have before, becoming more relaxed, fluent and better-versed. They will also become better listeners themselves. This is what happens when you have a rapt audience.

4) Mirroring The Speaker

As a mindful listener, mirroring the speaker includes activities like repeating what a speaker says in your own words, at given intervals. This is often something that happens naturally when you are truly paying attention, assuring the speaker that you are concentrating, understanding, and care about the issue at hand.

It also helps you keep things straight in your own mind, particularly if it is a long talk. It is an important part of learning the art of deep listening.

The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand, we listen to reply. ~ Zig Ziglar Share on X

5) Asking Questions

This is a natural extension of the last point, and is an excellent way of engaging the speaker. As with mirroring, the questions should arise naturally and enter seamlessly into the flow of conversation. They are always meant to seek clarification, or to diplomatically investigate assumptions or points being made, but never to attack or condescend the speaker (which would be a question arising from the ego for altogether different reasons).

In fact, even in a debate, deep listening can get to the heart of the matter much more quickly than questions arising from the traditional form of listening, as the underlying intent of the speaker (and any holes in their argument therein) are much more clear. 

Why The Practice of Deep Listening Is So Important In The Modern World

The 21st century makes mindful communication tough, to say the least. With all of the electronic gadgets we have at our disposal, not only is listening becoming a dying art, but so is the feeling of being listened to.

“The reality of the other person lies not in what He reveals to you but in what He cannot reveal to you. Therefore, if you would understand Him, listen not to what He says but rather to what He does not say.” ~ Kahlil Gibran

Taking the steps listed in this article and working to develop Deep Listening will not only be good for yourself, but for all of the people you come in contact with. It will let them know that someone’s actually there, encouraging them to open up and keep speaking honestly.

Not only that, it has benefits in both home and work life, making decisions easier due to the greater retention and understanding of information, preventing mis-communication and misunderstandings because of the factual clarity it provides, and it boosts the self-confidence and self-esteem of the speaker, whether they’re 5 or 50.

So the next time you’re playing the audience and your mind shifts to an extent that you fail to recall the message being delivered, know that it is time to switch into deep listening mode. Remember, it’s a practice, and just like most other practices, it can be mastered. 

The best version of yourself is the one that is eager to listen, and slow to talk.

Alphan Maina
Alphan Maina


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