Today, more than ever, communication matters. Let me share a communication tool I believe is essential for anyone wanting to make a connection.
Communication is made up of three main elements: speaking, writing and listening. You learned to speak when you were very young thanks to your parents/care givers. You learned to write at school thanks to your teachers. When and where were you ever taught to listen – not in the context of simply allowing words to enter your mind but rather to really listen and connect to the words and the person speaking them? Nowhere!
Sometimes listening skills may be developed as a result of the occupation you choose, such as a counsellor, a coach or a sales consultant. Or, you may develop listening skills when exploring ways to improve your relationships. Or, you may learn to listen as part of management development. In most cases, listening skills developed in these contexts are skills around ‘active listening’.
The International Coach Federation (ICF) Core Competency 5 is Active Listening in which we ‘have the ability to focus completely on what the client is saying and is not saying, to understand the meaning of what is said in the context of the client’s desires, and to support client self-expression’. We pay close attention to the client and what they are saying, and we devote ourselves to understanding what the client is trying to say. We may repeat key points aloud or in our head to confirm our understanding
It is called Active Listening because our minds are active when we listen. There is nothing wrong with this, it is learned skill, yet I believe there is another level of listening that is more powerful than active listening. This is what I call ‘still mind’ listening.
I’m sure if you are really honest, you have had the experience with family, friends or colleagues who say, “I just don’t feel heard”, whether in their relationship or in the workplace. That feeling of ‘being heard’ shouldn’t be underestimated – it connects people, make a person feel valued and it builds relationships.
Think back to a time when you were fully listened to. It may have been by a family member, a friend or a colleague. Think of a time you felt fully heard and understood – when your conversation was valued. How are you going? Do many times come to mind?
Most people to whom I ask that question don’t have many examples of being fully listened to. In my case, I was fortunate enough to work with General Motors Holden Chairman and Managing Director, Bill Hamel, who was an expert listener. He practised MBWA (Management By Walking About) then would stand in his office jangling coins in his pockets as he processed and integrated what he had heard from the factory floor to the executive dining room. His wife, Juanita, was also an exquisite listener. When you were talking with her, she made you feel like you were the only person in the world; she was totally focussed on what you were saying and fully present to you. I believe that both Bill and Juanita Hamel were practising, possibly unbeknown to them, still mind listening, a tremendous asset to their leadership skillset.
“It is the province of knowledge to speak. And, it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
What is ‘still mind’ listening?
Still mind listening is when you are 100% present and listening to the speaker and are not crafting your response at the same time. You know what I mean. If you start to pay attention you will notice that often when someone is speaking to you your mind is active and in the background you are preparing your comments, responses, advice, examples, solutions, retort or rebuttal. This is why it’s called active listening – the listener is actively crafting what they will say next to demonstrate they have been listening.
However, when your own mind is active you are not fully present to the speaker. Rather, you jump in as soon as the speaker takes a breath to share your highly valuable response. For example you have a similar example, solution, question or a bigger/better version of what the speaker just said and you just know the speaker will benefit from hearing it. Go on, admit it, you are guilty of doing this. Everyone is. It is not wrong, it is simply limited; you are only listening to content, not context.
When you are practicing still mind listening, your focus is 100% in the present moment with the speaker. You don’t think about your response or next question but rather you are connected with the speaker and absorbing their words. It is only when the speaker has finished speaking that you process what has been said and then craft your response, in that moment.
Practicing still mind listening
It’s never too late to learn to connect better with those around you – your family, friends, colleagues or clients. Practice these five points to become an expert still mind listener:
- Become aware that this level of stillness in listening can exist.
- Pay attention to interactions where you feel fully listened to and also when you do not. What is the impact in each case?
- Make the choice in your interactions to listen with a still mind.
- Be realistic and accept that while you are ‘still mind’ listening your mind will drift and become active again.
- When you notice your mind drift, bring yourself back to being present. Relax. Quieten your internal thought system. There is no need to be distracted by thoughts of the past or the future. Bring your focus back to the context of what the speaker is saying and let go of your inner dialogue.
Remember, when your mind is relaxed and alert you can hear aspects of the context in which the speaker is speaking you can’t hear when your mind is busy. In this way, you gain greater access to your intuition, unclouded by analytical considerations and you listen with your whole being.
For the speaker, your quiet receptivity makes them feel heard and valued and invites deeper sharing. What a generous gift to give another person. What an essential skill to process as an executive, a manager, a family member, a friend or a colleague.
“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” Henry David Thoreau
Still mind listening is another level of listening you can add to your communication toolkit. If you want to make the speaker feel heard and valued I encourage you to start practising still mind listening. I guarantee it will improve the quality of your relationships – both in the workplace and at home.