“How are you?” has become greeting instead of a question of connection. Throughout your day notice how often someone asks, “How are you?” Then count the number of times s/he wait for a reply. Next, notice the other ways that we speak but do not communicate during the course of our workday.
Intentional listening is a way of engaging another in conversation by paying attention to what the other is saying. Instead of interrupting, we wait to formulate our response until after s/he finishes speaking. No longer do we interject and, in doing so, cut off another person’s words. Instead, we listen to what is said while noticing how the comments of another may trigger our judgments and assumptions. Attention focused inward and outward may create pocket of silence between each sharing.
This way of conversing requires a lot of energy and total focus on the present moment. Intentional listening asks that we become comfortable with any pauses that are a result of our, or the other person’s, response formulation. During these moments of silence, we decide the most gentle, honest compassionate response. With practice these moments of silence become a comfortable, integral part of any dialogue.
We cannot create a grocery list or think about how we will reach a deadline when listening in this way. When our attention slips, we lose connection. Unable to listen to what the other person is saying, we miss important information. Externally this information is provided by words, body language, or the inflection of a word or phrase.
Internally, a judgment may unwittingly surface through our internal monologue. It fuels a reaction to what the other said. Our reactionary strike shuts down the conversation. At best, we have lost an opportunity to reach understanding. At worst, we may have created an unsafe environment where free speaking is discouraged. Rebuilding trust may prove difficult.
Staying in the moment while simultaneously listening to our internal monologue and external dialogue takes practice. Listening with intent involves bi-listening to internal and external conversations. Communicating through bi-listening comes with rewards. In being fully present to another while acknowledging our judgments and assumptions, we craft gentle, honest, compassionate responses. Each response fortifies the foundation of great relationship and stronger organizational culture.
Practice: Before an upcoming conversation, spend a few moments alone. Focus on your breathing. Be aware of how your mind is pulled out of the moment by distractions. Acknowledge the distractions. Visualize your breath entering your body. With each inhale your body further relaxes. If you have an expectation for the conversation, name it. Open yourself to listening without expectation or agenda.
Enter the conversation. Listen to your internal monologue. Pay attention to the external conversation. Take time after the person finishes speaking to gather your thoughts and respond.
After the conversation: Was your communication different? If so, how?
Vanessa F. Hurst is a Community Builder who consults with organizations to strengthen stakeholder relationships and improve organizational culture. Her program “Listen with Intent, Respond with Compassion” creates a rich, dynamic space where trust increases and understanding occurs. Through this experiential training, participants discover what prevents them from listening objectively and with an open mind.