Becoming a Conscious Listener

Author: Chelsea Rutherford
September 7, 2022

We all recognize that listening skills are a necessity - not just in leadership but in every aspect of life. These skills are the throughline in effective decision-making and strong relationships. The challenging part is that listening requires a lot of energy and attention, and attention is a finite resource. 

There’s a major discrepancy between the given number of things we must listen to in a day and the amount of attention we can offer. If you’ve had a long day of meetings, it’s harder to offer your attention to your aging parent or energetic child when you get home. This doesn’t make you a bad person, it makes you human.  

We’ve discovered that humans are not wired to fully listen all of the time. The brain’s preferred mode of operating is in conflict with listening. Listening is so much more than simply not talking, it’s a nuanced interpersonal skill that requires a huge amount of effort. 

Listening for longevity

Since we want to create workplaces where people also have enough energy at the end of the day for their personal lives, we need to develop techniques for listening that improve our ability to hear important messages clearly without depleting our energy levels.

As with most things in life, the first place to start is with awareness. We can overcome barriers to listening by knowing that we aren’t wired for it. We may be far from our ancestors of millenia ago in terms of time, but we still default to the same things they did: satisfying our needs for community, safety, and survival. Notice how difficult it is to listen when you’re hungry, stressed or worried about a loved one. Depending on the conditions of your surroundings or the state that you’re in, it’s only a matter of time before your brain starts to direct your focus elsewhere.

The key to effective listening is being conscious of how we direct our energy when we’re listening instead of letting our brains decide for us. For example, when your mind drifts to everything you have to get done before the end of the day, remind yourself that you’ll get to it and draw your attention back to the person you’re listening to. Same goes for when you’re at home and your partner or child is telling you about their day - bring your mind back to the person in front of you and away from the tasks that are waiting for you at work. These things will still be there, but your window of opportunity to create connection and make the person feel heard will pass. 

Adapting the workday for better listening

Each of us has a lot on our mind these days, both professionally and personally. While we can’t help you to manage every aspect of your day, we can offer a few ideas to remove the strain of listening in your workday.

  • For any meetings over an hour, give your team a 10-minute break each hour to grab a snack or get a coffee - the time to recharge and refocus will improve the quality of your meeting. 
  • Make it a walking meeting - fresh air and movement stimulate your brain, and many people communicate better when they can look ahead or at their surroundings instead of directly at the person they’re speaking with.
  • Give people the option to take breaks with their video off during virtual meetings - some people are more comfortable when they know they can stand up or walk around while listening without having to worry about distracting others.
  • Turn your video on when you want to demonstrate that you are fully present and engaged. It takes more energy for our brains but it has a huge positive impact on organizational culture and team connection.

In a recent newsletter Mark Manson wrote, “Ultimately, nobody can manage our attention but ourselves.” It’s true. We can decide what we focus on when we listen, and we can create circumstances that allow us to listen in a way that overrides our brains’ preferred mode of operating. For many of us, listening is not exactly intuitive, but it’s one of the most important interpersonal skills we can develop.

To understand listening on a deeper level and hone your skills as a conscious listener, consider exploring our Connecting Through Listening workshop.

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