How to be a Better Listener

Oren Jay Sofer
April 28, 2024
A woman listens intently at a desk

“You’re not listening!” my friend Jeremy shouted in frustration.

We were standing in his kitchen and Jeremy was upset. Though I can’t remember the details, what I do remember is that he was right: I was only half-listening. I was waiting for him to finish so I could explain my perspective. Even though I was completely silent, making eye contact, and hearing every word, Jeremy could sense that I wasn’t really taking it in. I was building my case, preparing to defend myself.

I took a deep breath. Closing my eyes, I let go of my desire to explain myself. I relaxed into listening and trying to understand. I felt my feet on the ground and opened my eyes.

“Okay,” I said. “Go on.”

As soon as I released my agenda, and found some genuine curiosity and care about what he was saying, the whole tone of the conversation shifted.

“Thank you,” Jeremy sighed as he continued, sensing that I now was actually willing and available to listen. He went on to explain how he was feeling and why. I listened, really heard him, and acknowledged the truth of his experience independent of my own feelings or views:

“Yeah, I get that’s how you felt,” I said. “I can see why you’d be upset.”

Instead of being caught up in my own mind, I was able – luckily! – to ground myself in the present moment, and from there, reconnect with my intention to really listen to what he had to say.

Becoming a better listener may sound simple, but it’s not easy. It takes practice: we need to train ourselves, with mindfulness and other practices, to notice when we’re operating from our habitual tendencies – like when I was priming myself to respond rather than really listening.

The key, in my experience and in many years of teaching mindful communication, is to approach any conversation – easy or difficult, loving or hostile – with curiosity and care. Here’s how you can put these ideas into practice.

1. Stay curious

Curiosity means that we are interested in learning. Learning requires humility; we must be willing to not know. To comprehend anything, we need to put aside our preconceived ideas and be open to new ways of seeing.

Curiosity also requires patience. There’s a conservationist named Cynthia Moss who studied elephants closely for twenty years before she began to realize how complex they were. That is some serious patience!

Here’s one practice to develop curiosity. First, before a conversation, do a very short meditation. See if you can find a genuine intention to understand the other person—their thoughts, views, feelings, or needs. Are you staying curious? What matters to this person? What do they long for or need? How can we start to understand each other more?

Check in with your body and mind. How does it feel to be genuinely interested? Try to get a sense of that feeling. Then try checking back in during the conversation itself. Is the feeling still there? If not, can you get back to it? Stay curious about what’s going on in the conversation, and also about your reactions to what’s happening.

2. Stay grounded in what you care about

Care is the second essential ingredient. We don’t pay attention to things we don’t care about, and we don’t care about things we don’t pay attention to. And, as with my conversation with Jeremy years ago, we often can’t hide our lack of caring as well as we think we can.

Care means that we don’t lose sight of our values; that we stay connected to what we care about. It also means that we’re open to being affected by what we hear, that we are committed to seeing the other person’s humanity, and that we are willing to include their needs in the situation rather than be rigidly fixated on getting what we want in exactly the way we want it.

What’s essential is the quality of care itself, goodwill connected to the empathic sense. It includes warmth, vulnerability, and flexibility.

As with curiosity, it can be helpful to check in with your values and your goodwill before a conversation even begins. In a quick, pre-conversation meditation, you might silently ask yourself a question like “What’s happening here? How can I relax and find some balance?” Or “Regardless of the outcome, how do I want to handle myself here?”

Let that simple intention guide what you say or do next.

When we approach a dialogue with curiosity and care, we’re willing and able to listen. And that opens the door to more connection and understanding. It takes practice, but it’s one of the most important keys to mindful communication. Let us know how it goes for you!

Oren Jay Sofer is a nationally recognized teacher of meditation, mindfulness and Nonviolent Communication and a regular contributor to the Ten Percent Happier app. A member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, he holds a degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University, is the author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, and is the co-author of Teaching Mindfulness to Empower Adolescents. Oren also teaches online courses in Mindful Communication. Social: @Orenjaysofer

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