I don’t know any other way to break it to you, but becoming a soulful listener is tough. Our digital age makes it difficult to give someone your undivided attention. There are practical ways that help you become more than a better listener; you can become a soulful one.
These days, listening takes practice and perseverance. Since technology changes the way we relate to one another, engaging in an undistracted conversation requires intentionality. Busyness and technology corrode intuitive conversation skills like eye contact and standing still.
The reality is that to cultivate soulful listening, you may have to retrain your brain to sustain attention and resist distraction.
But the flip side, deep listening contributes to health and wellness. It can relieve stress, build strong, harmonious relationships, and demonstrate compassion and empathy.
What does it take to be fully present in a conversation? How can you become a soulful listener?
Over the past few months, I’ve used a few techniques to help foster soulful listening skills.
1. Remove any distractions
Television and hand-held devices
A few years ago, while on a women’s retreat, after the teaching sessions ended, I headed straight to the movie room and plopped into a recliner. A British period movie on the big screen, a bowlful of popcorn, and no one else’s agenda but my own, could it get any better?
During a pivotal moment in the movie, a young mom sat next to me. She wanted to share her struggles in parenting special needs children. I made every human effort to focus on this dear woman’s words, facial expressions, and tone. No matter how hard I tried, her words competed with the dialogue of a Mr. Darcy-ish love triangle.
It took every ounce of self-control not to turn my attention to the big screen. I think the young mom sensed my struggle because she apologized for interrupting my movie.
I suggested that we move to another room so that we could continue our conversation, undistracted.
Media almost prevented me from loving my neighbor. My visually stimulated movie brain nearly seduced me into disregarding an opportunity to connect deeply with another person.
I almost did the exact opposite of what I am called to do as a Christian. For a fleeting moment, my distraction communicated that loving my neighbor was an interruption and an inconvenience.
I am glad that we moved to another room. Through undistracted listening, I learned so much about this woman and her circumstances.
How often do we detach from a conversation when we get a notification on our phone? Author Tony Reinke reports in his book 12 Ways Your Smart Phone is Changing You that we check our phones” about 81,500 times per year, or once every 4.3 minutes of our waking lives.”
2. Look at the person
A person knows she has your attention when you look at her while she is talking. With the help of cell phones, most of us have become master multi-taskers.
It’s hard to maintain eye-to-eye contact when multi-tasking. Trust me, I struggle with this all of the time.
What I’ve learned recently is that during a conversation, looking at the person can propel compassion. Paul Miller writes, “By keeping the other person in front of us, we are opening the door to compassion.”
Too often, our (well, at least mine does) conversation posture looks something like this: our head remains hunched over our phone screen, bobbing up just long enough to check-in to the conversation.
This type of half-hearted conversation posture makes a person feel unimportant.
Jesus teaches us that looking is paramount to loving our neighbor. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the Samaritan looks at a man who has been mugged and beaten.
After looking at the battered man in the eye, empathy, and compassion unfold.
The importance of offering our undivided attention to someone could be the conduit to the healing of a parched soul.
3. Don’t Worry About What You Will Say Next
When a friend shares her struggle, it’s tempting to mentally devise a solution to her problem while she is still mid-sentence. The process of trying to generate a response diminishes focus and attention.
Feeling obliged to offer a quick response puts the spotlight on the speaker, not the person who is sharing. If you feel the need to say something, Dr. Paul David Tripp reminds us:
4. Make Every Effort to Avoid Interrupting
Wait for a natural break in the conversation before you take your turn.
5. Summarize, Paraphrase, Mirror, Reiterate
I work from home. Often my kids come into my office and sit in the chair next to my desk. When they do this, it is an unspoken signal that they need to talk.
As my teen talks, the urge to multi-task tempts me like an afternoon Netflix binge on a workday. It would be so easy to do, but the consequences are damaging.
To avoid the temptation to multi-task, I learned a simple way to keep my mind engaged in the conversation. It’s called weaving words. When it’s my turn to talk, I weave the speaker’s last few words or phrases into the conversation.
I can’t weave words if I am only half-listening. Regrettably, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work.
Another listening strategy I use lately, I pivot my chair so that I face the speaker so that my back is to my laptop.
Weaving words confirm my understanding and affirm that I am all in. I try to remember that even impromptu conversations with my kids create meaningful memories.
“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” Dr. Seuss
6. Encourage, Explore, Inquire
Curiosity is an essential component of soulful listening. Most often, curiosity starts with a question. The sort of questions that elicit personal exploration and reflection, not just information gathering.
The summer when I was ten, my cousins and I spent the day at our aunt’s summer cottage. Probably tired of swimming in the river, we made our way to the local playground.
We spent the afternoon whirling and twirling the swing chains, then swinging in unison as a cousin trio.
Before the dust settled from stopping my swing, a neighborhood ruffian girl, who was the same age as me, approached.
She clutched a pack of Marlborough Red cigarettes and blurted out expletives in place of hellos.
She sat on the swing next to me. I unabashedly stared in envy at her Calvin Klein jeans. Klein’s were the uniform for the cool kids of the ’70s.
I wasn’t allowed to wear Calvin Klein jeans until I turned 14.
She scoffed at my red and white polka dot print summer dress with a sailor collar.
In spite of our mutual age, she seemed too grown-up for the playground.
At that point in my life, I had the irritating habit of asking questions without thinking them through.
I asked the neighborhood tough girl, “Why do you smoke?”
I should have stopped there with the questioning. But I didn’t.
“Why do you cuss?”
With her hand on her pre-adolescent hip, neighborhood tough girl candidly replied, “Because it’s my hobby.”
I suppose immaturity, coupled with misguided curiosity, created a recipe for inquiry disaster. My innocent questions sounded more like an inquisition than natural curiosity.
Judgment fueled my question, and the neighborhood girl felt the sting.
That’s not the type of curiosity that builds friendships; it’s the kind that evokes defenses.
In a conversation, meaningful questions let people know that you want to know about their world. Authentic, non-judgmental curiosity in conversation can build relationships.
Cultivate Soulful Listening Skills
At the onset of a conversation, clear distractions from your mind and your desk. Once you’ve cleared space both mentally and physically, then focus on the proximity. Sit across from your friend or next to them so that eye-to-eye contact is effortless.
Then begin to listen so well that you can paraphrase chunks of the conversation.
With authentic curiosity, listening is taken to a deeper level. Often, it’s open-ended questions that invite people to reflect and share:
- What does healthy living look like to you?
- When you mention that you are stressed, how would you define “stress?”
- What are your thoughts about making short-term goals?
Like any spiritual discipline, soulful listening requires practice. Doing that may require using simple listening techniques. While soulful listening is a useful skill, the ultimate goal with the posture of undistracted listening is to cultivate compassion and love for others.