What’s the difference between hearing and listening?
I once asked that question to a group of fourth-graders before leading them in a mindful listening practice. (See more on ways to practice mindful listening below.)
“Hearing is like water falling and bouncing off a rock,” said one boy. “While listening is like water falling and being absorbed by a sponge.”
I’ve never forgotten how that wise fourth-grader responded to my question. It’s stayed with me as a metaphorical reminder of how to listen well – with interested, engaged, sponge-like attention. It’s also stayed with me as a reminder of the subtle power of listening – both in conversation and as a meditation on the sounds around us.
Listening is a highly underrated skill. In conversation, we emphasize speaking but it’s through listening that we understand each other better.
People who listen well put others at ease, reduce social anxiety, promote more self-awareness and create more clarity, according to the Harvard Business Review.
Listening is not only valuable when in conversation with others. Listening to the soundscape around us – whether it’s a Pharell William’s song, the neighbor’s lawnmower or a car passing below our window – lands us squarely in the present moment. Attending to sounds is a dedicated form of meditation, offering us a focal point and a way to connect to the vibrancy of life.
“The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness, the boom or the beat, but in the timbre, the variations and the subtle sounds that one can only discern when they pay attention,” says Scott Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist.
Interesting things often happen when we listen with mindfulness at our side. Arguments transform into constructive conversations. Leaders learn more from their employees, spawning problem solving and innovation. The “music” of our daily life becomes a source of joy and inspiration.
Many years ago, I attended an outdoor poetry reading at the Los Angeles Times Book Fair. As the poet began to read his poem a baby in the audience started wailing. Embarrassed by the raucous, the baby’s mother got up to rush the infant outside of the open-air tent. But the poet stopped her and said: “Oh, please don’t take the baby away. A baby’s cry is like a tuning fork for a poet.”
There are many such tuning forks for us throughout the day – whether it’s listening well to someone else speak or to a Blue Jay in your backyard.
Here are some perspectives and practices to make mindful listening a part of your daily life to enrich your relationships and to become more present.
- Listen to Understand: Author and educator Stephen Covey said “The biggest communication problem we have is that we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply.” If that sounds all too familiar your listening skills may need sharpening. Instead of plotting your next move, listen with the intention to understand the person who is speaking. Nod your head and smile. Ask a question or two. You might be surprised how much more interesting the conversation becomes when you do.
- 80% on them; 20% on you: Sometimes it helps to have a numeric formulation to gauge just how well you’re attending to those who are speaking. As Covey says much of the time when we think we’re listening, we’re actually formulating our reply or daydreaming or judging, etc. To quell these tendencies we can hold an intention to put 80% of our attention on the speaker while reserving 20% on ourselves to notice when we’ve stopped listening and started planning our reply.
- Open your ears: Often when we meditate we’re given the breath as an object of our focus. But the breath isn’t always a comfortable focal point for everyone. We also experience the world through more than just the felt sense of our breath. Next time you’re seated in meditation, shift your attention to listen to the sounds in your environment and use sound as a home base for your attention. You can also open your ears to everyday sounds to become more mindful and enliven your life. What do your footsteps sound like as you walk to the car? Can you hear the strike of the keys on your keyboard? How about the sound of your own breathing? You might discover that the sound of silence is far more nuanced than you ever imagined.