If we could listen to ourselves as we converse, we would probably be astounded at how often we speak mindlessly. We are so taken up with being the speaker that, quite innocently perhaps, we make insensitive comments, speak inaccurately, or talk too much, hardly aware of the effect of those actions.
Mindless speaking is a proven listening stopper. For example, I was recently corrected by a patient, notorious for her attention to detail, for using the word girl to refer to a twenty-year-old woman who worked at the desk. I meant no harm by that slip of the tongue, but in the eyes of my patient it was offensive.
Thinking Before Speaking
Having heard that I was from Chicago, a native New Englander asked me if I noticed any differences between Bostonians and Chicagoans. In the past I might have mindlessly responded that I felt that people in Boston tend to be less friendly and more conservative. These words would have certainly ruffled his feathers. Now when I'm asked such a question, I try to consider my listener before I speak. I might say, "Bostonians appear to me to be more private," or "Bostonians take a little more time to get to know strangers." Both statements communicate my perceptions without hurting anyone's feelings.
The last time you were faced with an angry customer, did you make things worse by giving excuses or stating company policy? Ugh! According to Jeffrey Gitomer, public relations consultant, customers hate the word policy. The next time, shift your perspective to the customer's concerns. You might say, "Yes, that's terrible. The fastest way to handle that is . . ." It is likely that you will keep that customer.
Whose Movie Are You Watching?
Think of the times when others have offended you. Did they say those things on purpose? Couldn't they sense your embarrassment or irritation despite your smile? No, probably not. They were deep in their own movies, unaware of yours.
Interestingly, the more mindful you are of the movies of your speakers, the more sensitive you become to your own words. The next time you say something you regret, notice whether you were propelled by self-consciousness, ego fulfillment, or disrespect for the speaker's perspective. Smile at your newfound awareness, knowing that this discovery will prevent future mindless moments.
Avoid putting yourself down. Instead, remember that your intentions were good. Next time, notice how much more appropriate your comments are when you are mindful of not only your intent, but the perspective of your listener. You will say less and learn more. Your mind won't wander around looking for a clever rejoinder so that your conversation partner can see how clever and amusing you are.
Mindful Meditative Listening
One of the benefits of meditation is that you learn to pause before you speak. Meditation de-automatizes your false self, the part of the ego that is self-conscious, insecure, righteous, and deluded by your barriers. If your foundation for listening is not based on meditation and mindfulness, it feels awkward and mechanical to stop and think before speaking. You have to first clear your mind of traffic, stop wondering what the other person is thinking about you, get comfortable with the silence, try to remember what the speaker just said, and formulate a response. Drudgery of this sort discourages you from making self-listening a habit.
Fortunately, daily mindfulness practice makes it comfortable and natural to take in the whole message and choose your words carefully in much less time and with greater accuracy. Your words must match as closely as possible how you feel and what you want. However, there are many interpretations out there. Aside from words alone, other features of your speech can flip the meaning. Varying combinations of characteristics like speech rate, pauses, pitch contour, emphasis, loudness, facial expression, and eye contact may concoct a message well beyond your intent.
Watch Your Step & Watch What You Say
Mindful listening includes the ability to listen to what you say and make necessary changes. When writing a memo, you are more careful with word choice. Because you can see what you want to communicate, it is easier to review your message and edit vague or inaccurate information. Why should you be any less careful when speaking? How many times have you said "left" when you meant "right," or "Tuesday morning" when you meant to say, "Thursday morning" and later paid the consequences?
Just as you carefully watch your footing on a steep and rocky path, you should speak with the same care to avoid injury or costly mistakes. You make a statement, hear it back in your head, and study your listener to be sure it was received the way you meant it.
If you notice frequent discrepancies between your intention and the reaction of your listener, you need to examine whether 1) your words accurately represented your thoughts, 2) your tone of voice or physical movements contradicted your intended meaning, 3) your listener interpreted your meaning from his unique cultural perspective rather than yours, or 4) your listener chose not to accept your point of view or did not process the information accurately.
Listening Is An Art
Listening to yourself, like listening to others, is an art. It requires mindfulness to match your intent with appropriate words and be sensitive to the way others perceive them.
There are ways in which you can communicate a personal intent without overusing I. You might begin a sentence with "It seems to me," or "It has been my experience that. . ." or "My feeling is. . ."
Here's an alarming fact: of approximately eight hundred thousand words in the English language, we use about eight hundred on a regular basis. Those eight hundred words have fourteen thousand meanings. By division there are about seventeen meanings per word. In other words, we have a one-in-seventeen chance of being understood as we intended. Perhaps you've heard of Chisholm's Third Law -- If you explain something so clearly that no one can misunderstand, someone will.
Again, this is where listening to yourself comes in. Be mindful of matching as closely as possible your words to your thoughts. Sometimes a short rehearsal on the way to an important meeting is a good way to hear back what you intend to say. Keep the number of words to a minimum. Outline the main issues in your mind or on paper. Weigh every word cautiously and check your listener periodically to see whether he is perceiving you correctly. Eliminate foggy words or phrases such as, "It is my determination that Johnny is demonstrating indicators of increased positive socialization with various classmates and his teachers," and replace them with "Johnny is getting along better with others." This word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase evaluation is particularly necessary when the discussion is complex or emotionally charged.
Listening to Body Language & Facial Expressions
As an extra check, encourage your listener to tell back or paraphrase your message to be sure it was delivered as you intended. These three steps -- rehearsing, self-evaluating, and rechecking -- can make you reasonably sure that you connected with your listener.
You must also be aware of comments or vocalizations that send a message you do not intend. For example, to some, nodding or saying "Uh-huh" suggests agreement. To others it simply means, "I am paying attention." There is no single universal interpretation of body movements or facial expressions. As our towns and workplaces become more culturally diverse, you must not expect people of different nationalities to respond nonverbally in the same way you do. A head nod in one culture (Japanese, for example), means, "I'm following you." In India, the same nod indicates disagreement.
Gestures and voice inflection should serve to emphasize and reinforce key words or phrases. These help the listener identify the important points, almost like using a highlighter pen to help you remember main ideas on a page.
Hold Your Tongue
1. If you are a chronic interrupter, halt your interruption midsentence and say, "Excuse me. Please go on with what you were saying." In time, you will catch your self before you interrupt. However, if from the start of the conversation you get into their movie, your focus will not be on your agenda anyway; you will be totally absorbed with understanding your speakers, and there will be less tendency for you to interrupt.
2. As a speaker, there are acceptable ways to stave off an interrupter. Watch some of the political group discussions on CNN to learn the technique. When someone jumps in on you to disagree or to dominate the conversation, hold up your index finger, signaling "Just a minute," and continue talking. If the verbal intruder persists, stop and say, "Let me finish and then I will listen to you." Continue with what you were saying. Be mindful that the speaker may have a practical reason for interrupting (i.e., you are out of time; there is an important call for you).
3. If you need to interrupt for a legitimate reason, raise a hand to chest level and address the person by name. "Bob, excuse me, but due to time, we must get back on track," or "Linda, we are out of time." Using their names gets their attention.
4. The next time you have to give a talk or present an issue, find a private place and tape yourself on video or audio. It is often astounding to hear yourself as your listeners will hear you. Reflect on your choice of words, tone of voice, and other aspects of your presentation. You may well want to revise a few things. (By the way, your voice sounds different on tape. Most of us are familiar with our voices as they reverberate through our skulls. The recorded voice is very close to the sound that other people hear.)
5. In our quest to become compassionate listeners, "friendly" is a good place to start. Come up with a new, friendlier greeting for your voice mail. Avoid the robotic phrases you hear on everyone else's voice mail like, "I'm either on the phone, or . . ." No kidding! Smile as you speak, as if you just received a great compliment from your boss. Now listen with the ears of a stranger. Does it make you smile or feel welcomed? In the words of Jeffrey Gitomer, author of Customer Satisfaction Is Worthless, Customer Loyalty Is Priceless, "Friendly makes sales -- and friendly generates repeat business."
6. To combat frequent swearing, practice using more acceptable expletives. Brainstorm a variety of synonyms to describe a person, situation, or anything else to which you might reflexively attach the swear word. For example, instead of saying, "That was the best f ------- cheesecake I ever ate," you might substitute "exquisite".
7. To practice choosing words carefully, take a piece of paper and draw an abstract design. Find a partner and give him a piece of paper and a pen. With your design visible only to yourself, describe the shapes and locations on the paper as clearly as possible. See if your partner interprets your words as you intended and reproduces the design exactly.
8. Look for the subtle negatives in your habitual responses and turn them into positives. For example, if you are the appointment scheduler, you may find yourself in a rut response pattern, saying things like, "I'm sorry there's nothing open for you till next week." That comment makes others feel unwanted and disappointed. If there's nothing you can do to create the desired time slot, try making the same message positive: "Mr. Jones, you're in luck! Dr. Smith has an opening next Friday!"
9. Below is a list of negative responses. Keep the same message but make your listener feel good.
- We won't have any more size twelves until Monday.
- Get in line with everyone else.
- You're really lost aren't you? Where's your map?
- You can't be serious about fixing this bike.
- Mr. Ramirez is waiting to get an important call. Call back later.
- Our new computer system has lost your file. Try back tomorrow.
Here are some suggested answers:
- Every Monday we get in a large shipment, including size twelves. May I put something aside for you next Monday?
- To be fair to those who have been waiting, we need to make a line.
- I'll help you get back home. Do you have a map, by any chance?
- I'm really sorry, but this bike can't be repaired.
- Mr. Ramirez is eager to speak with you, but he is helping another customer right now. May he call you back in a few minutes?
- Today we're having some computer difficulties. I apologize for the inconvenience.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Quest Books, The Theosophical Publishing House.
The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction
by Rebecca Z. Shafir.
Good communication enhances effectiveness and relationships in all areas of business, marriage, friendship, and parenting as well as develops inner wisdom. Learn the great barricades of misunderstanding, find out how to listen to ourselves, discover how to listen under stress, and boost our memory. This is a fun and practical guide filled with simple strategies to use immediately to enjoy our personal and professional lives to the fullest.
Info/Order this paperback book. Also available in a Kindle edition.
About the Author
REBECCA Z. SHAFIR, M.A., CCC, is a certified speech/language pathologist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. A ten-year student of Zen, she teaches communication workshops nationwide and has coached media personalities and political candidates since 1980. She presents a variety of programs ranging from keynote addresses to weeklong seminars tailored to meet the individual needs of corporations, healthcare institutions, professional associations, universities, and the general public. For more information or to share your experiences with mindful listening, send your letters to: Rebecca Z. Shafir P.O. Box 190 Winchester, MA 01890. Visit her website: www.mindfulcommunication.com.