Photo by Linnea Sandbakk

Mindful listening during meetings

When you communicate with others, do you feel that you get their full attention? Are you fully present when listening to others? What distracts us from true listening?

Sometimes it is really hard to listen when we are in a meeting. Maybe we are distracted by worries that are related to our work or personal life. Our ambition could make it hard for us to listen, because we are eager to get our point across and for a moment, that feels more urgent than listening. It could also be that we are shy and that we are more focused on making an appropriate impression than being relaxed and focusing on the other person. Or maybe we are tired or our body is uncomfortable. A distraction that I experience regularly is that I have an important question and I’m afraid to forget it if I don’t interrupt.

Even though true listening can be difficult sometimes, it is worth giving it our best effort. People notice when others are not paying attention. Even if we try very hard to fake our attention, they still notice. They might not feel heard. The following quote reminds me why I find it important to practice mindful listening:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,
people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.
– Maya Angelou –

The way we do daily stand-ups at my work is great for practicing mindful listening. We have a little toy bird that we pass along, and the person that has the bird can talk for as long as he or she likes. Meanwhile the others listen. It resembles the way we talk and listen in the meditation group I attend.

In my meditation group we have so called ‘dharma sharings’. Like during stand-ups, when someone is talking, the others listen and don’t interrupt. We practice mindful listening, which means you don’t think about what you want to say when listening to someone else. You are fully present. What the other person says may trigger emotions, judgements or compassion in you and you witness that. Because we are not allowed to interrupt, or to react directly, this eliminates ego reactions like needing to keep up your self-image by the way you react. No need to agree or disagree. No need to show how good of a person you are, or how intelligent. It is enough to just be present and listen.

For the one talking this feels very safe. No judgements are voiced. And when all others are really present, it feels like you are being carried by the full attention you receive. It allows you to relax and be present yourself and not be afraid someone will interrupt. There is no hurry. If you need some time to find the right words, that’s okay. The one who is listening can relax as well. No need to multi-task and be busy with your own reaction while listening. There is enough time. This way even more shy, quiet people get the time to share their insights.

This format is less suitable for discussions, however we can get rid of some of the distractions here as well. I have been reading about Holocracy. According to the website is a ‘self-management practice for running purpose-driven, responsive companies’. When using Holocracy, at the beginning of meetings a so-called check-in is done, where everyone can share if there are any distractions they are experiencing. So if you are for instance distracted because your child is sick, you just say so. The others then know about it and it relieves some of the pressure. If the environment is distracting, we could make some adjustments perhaps.

Equally important, I think, is that we all contribute to a safe environment at work. That we build a culture where it is alright to be vulnerable. Where it is okay to say that you don’t know. That you need to think about it. That you might not have a contribution yet, but that you will share your insights as soon as they come up (maybe in writing, on Slack or so).

When it comes to our distracting thoughts, fears perhaps of not being heard, impatience, or boredom, it takes practice. Becoming aware of these patterns is the first step in strengthening our ability to really listen.

I’m still struggling with my urge to ask questions immediately and even interrupting the speaker out of fear that my question will be forgotten, or not be answered. Maybe I could experiment with writing my question down so I can refocus my attention on the speaker.

What distractions do you experience when listening? And what would help you to eliminate them?

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