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Transform through the art of listening

Are you getting the message?

Like air, water and food, communication is essential to human existence. The quality of our communication affects every single aspect of our relationships – personal and professional.

Poor communication creates micro and macro levels of miscommunication, frustration and inefficiency, impairing our interactions and relationships, and, at times, can lead to unnecessary stress and avoidable conflict.

There are many reasons why communication is often broken or crooked, but it could almost certainly be improved by deepening our ability to listen.

Several studies have shown that we spend 70–80% of waking hours in some form of communication: 9% writing, 16% reading, 30% speaking and 45% listening.

Unfortunately, these studies highlight what we already know: we are poor or inefficient listeners. Is it surprising when our educational system focuses primarily on reading, writing and speaking? Yet, as we’ve seen, listening accounts for almost the same volume as the three other communication skills combined. So where are the classes dedicated to teaching us the art of listening?

The lost art of listening

Listening is a difficult ability to nurture, requiring a far higher level of focused attention.

But deep listening has many benefits including:

  • Effective communication
  • Presence, connection, empathy and intimacy
  • Decreases conflict
  • Improves collaboration, productivity and creativity
  • Increased sense of well-being

Few people are formally trained to listen: psychologists, coaches and mediators among others. But outside these professional categories how many are really able to actively listen? Think now: how many people do you consider amazing listeners? I can count very few.

And yet, skilled active listeners are people we like to work and be with. They make us feel respected, acknowledged and understood. They often provide us with valuable feedback. They are calmer and more in control of their emotions and responses. With them we experience a sense of expansiveness, personal connection and presence. They are the partners, friends, colleagues and leaders we all look for, yet – I’m sure you’ll agree – are the hardest to find.

But we shouldn’t beat ourselves up. It’s not our fault we’re lousy listeners. It’s all about the monkey and the gap.

The monkey and the gap

Listening4,000 years ago a brilliant man – the Buddha – coined the expression, ‘The monkey mind’, to describe the hyperactive minds of humans. Like the tree-dwelling mammal, our minds jump from one branch to the next, from one topic to another.

According to Buddha’s teaching this is the default mode of a mind that struggles to stay present, focused and unbiased to what appears in the moment.

He would have never imagined (or perhaps he did) the rate at which technology would exponentially exacerbate the monkey mind. We are here and elsewhere at the same time, tweeting, texting, jumping from one conversation to the next, faster and faster.

Instead of taming the monkey we feed it with its own poison: an accelerated cacophony of input and interactions. There is a shared sense of urgency in all dimensions of our hectic lives, both personally and professionally.

And there’s another reason why we wander so easily: the way the brain functions.

We talk at a rate of about 125–175 words per minute, while we think (listen) at the rate of up to 450 words per minute. This substantial gap between speaking speed and thought speed represents a 75% time differential in which the monkey mind can wander, entertaining itself with additional words and thoughts. This goes some way towards explaining why we retain, remember and understand so little of what we hear – only one quarter according to research. Counterbalancing the forces of mind wandering and bringing awareness to the challenging task of listening takes effort, yet could be easier than you think.

The time to reconnect with ourselves and others is now.

Minding the gap

Buddha taught that our minds can be tamed and slowed down by meditation. This contemplative practice calms our internal monkey and generates mindfulness.

Mindfulness and deep listening go hand in hand; they are two sides of the same coin.

Luckily, we needn’t formally meditate to boost mindfulness. There’s no need to sit on a cushion, legs crossed. We just need train ourselves to listen, and, conveniently our daily life offers this opportunity.

I train my clients with a technique called the 3As: Aware, Active and Awaken. You can download my handy guide to mastering the art of listening in three simple steps here

By listening, we can learn about and transform our relationship with ourselves – much more than we can through talking.

A powerful shift occurs: we leave behind bias, antagonism, self-centeredness and separation, instead embracing presence, collaboration, solidarity, and intimacy with ourselves – and with others. And crucially – for both our personal and professional lives – we allow ourselves to be positively changed by them.

Read the full unabridged version of Roberta’s article at her website.

About: Roberta Ronsivalle-Pearce

Before establishing Ronsivalle Pearce, Roberta led an award-winning branding design firm in New York as Head of Strategy and Managing Partner. She worked internationally with amazing individuals, creating compelling strategies to drive transformation of their brands and organisations, helping to grow the business from 5 to 30 people in under three years.