Excellent health is built on strong, loving relationships with ourselves and others. At the heart of stable relationships is good communication—clear, thoughtful communication can build trust and connectedness, and poor communication can result in toxic relationships.
While communicating is a two-way street, the only control you have in a conversation with another person is what you say and how you listen.
As a health coach, I’ve learned that the key to becoming a great communicator is becoming a great listener, but it takes practice. Being from New Jersey, where interrupting each other mid-sentence is a cultural norm, I’m still a work in progress.
In his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey lists the five ways in which we listen:
1. Ignoring: Making no effort to listen.
2. Pretend listening: Making believe you’re listening.
3. Selective listening: Hearing only what interests you.
4. Attentive listening: Paying attention to what’s being said and comparing it to yourself.
5. Empathic listening: Hearing with both the heart and the mind, with the intention of fully understanding not only the speaker’s words but also their feelings.
Notice how the first four levels define the listener as not being fully present to the speaker, but instead, hearing them through personal filters and biases.
The Zen master and spiritual leader Tich Nhat Hanh refers to level-five listening as “compassionate” or “deep listening.” In an interview with Oprah Winfrey on “SuperSoul Sunday,” Hanh says that our single purpose in listening is to help others empty their hearts in order to bring transformation and healing.
He goes on to say that even if we have a solution for that person, it’s best to reserve that thought for another time and practice staying fully present and listening without telling the speaker what to do.
Here are some tips you can practice every day to become a better listener:
– Don’t complete someone else’s sentence and don’t interrupt: In her book, “Listen to Succeed,” Leslie Shore says that not only does this type of communication keep us from fully understanding what someone is trying to say, it also sends the message that we’re more important than they are.
– Stop judgmental thoughts by noticing them when they arise: This is challenging, and it takes diligent self-awareness—not only when you’re in conversation with others, but in your own internal dialogue.
– Notice when you’re preoccupied with your agenda, and making what someone else is saying all about you.
– Accept the emotions and stories of the speaker, without wanting to change them.
– Ask if they’d like to hear your advice before offering.
– If someone does want your advice, try saying, “I have some ideas, but first I’d like to hear what you have in in mind.” This empowers the speaker by letting them know you trust them, and gives them space to come up with their own solutions.
The wise Greek philosopher, Epictetus, sums it up beautifully in this quote: “We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.”