Are you a good listener? I wasn’t for 27 years, but I am now—when I try really hard to be. The problem was I didn’t know what listening was. I thought it meant closing your mouth, making subtle acknowledgement grunts, and contemplating your own mind-blowing wisdom before finding the perfect moment to interject your voice. I didn’t realize that listening to someone else means you have to quiet your own thoughts and be there with the other person. I didn’t realize you had to hear more than the beginning and end of sentences.
I feel pretty bad about this. In 27 years, I probably non-listened to thousands of people! What did I miss? I would be so much wiser! Kinder! More compassionate! If only. As you can probably imagine, I didn’t just roll out of bed one morning and decide to become a better listener. My shift in thinking was thanks to one wise teacher and an intense self-discovery course. Keep reading to learn how listening deeply changed everything for me.
Amba Gale is a teacher who “coaches, consults, and designs with others, conversations that forward the awakening of heart, spirit, joy, and meaning in the workplace.” Her words, not mine, obviously. I wouldn’t begin to know what it means to “design a conversation” but these are the type of phrases she uses during her five-day seminar, The Heart of Leadership.
According to Gale, “Heart of Leadership is a five-day personal and professional development program which provides an opening for participants to make a shift in their being, in behalf of living their life from their own soaring spirit, their joy, their wisdom, and their authenticity, through providing for shifts in listening—for themselves, for others, and for life—in behalf of accomplishing what they intend in life and enlivening the lives of others.”
Yeah, I didn’t know what that meant either before I took off to Seattle, but I can tell you what the course was for me: a transformative, emotional, enlightening conversation with a conference room full of strangers-turned-friends that erupted a new level of kindness in my heart, openness in my mind, and purpose in my spirit.
Over the first three days, I learned how to quiet my own brain, stop interrupting people, and remain as present as possible. It’s crazy what being present does. Here’s an example: When in the course, I didn’t think of anyone all day. I didn’t think of my fiancé (sorry, cute face, though), my dog, my friends, my family. I didn’t wonder what I was missing on Instagram. I didn’t even think about my lunch. I honestly didn’t. I was there, with the teacher, with my classmates, and myself. It was intense, exhausting, and inspiring.
I was listening deeply from a place of nothing. What the hell does that mean? Well, it’s a phrase I picked up in the class, of course, but according to Gale, “listening is the art of fully coming into the presence of another with appreciation, and with a profound regarding and honor for other, getting into their world.”
Once I got back to the real world, I was excited to put my new listening skills to work. Here’s what happened in the first few days.
1. I Got Free Wine
I lead with this because what’s more motivating than free booze? While waiting for the bathroom on my flight home, I struck up a conversation with a flight attendant. Normally when talking to a stranger, I would smile kindly and look for the fastest opportunity to laugh my way out of the small talk. “Ah, been a long week, hahaha,” TURN YOUR HEAD. I didn’t do that this time. Instead, I looked her in the eye and listened to what she said. Revolutionary. We didn’t talk for long, but after a minute, she asked me if I needed anything to drink. I said, “Well, a glass of red wine would be amazing” (because that’s always my answer to that question). When I offered to pay she turned me down and said, “Hope you had a great conference.” She listened too! Life was golden.
2. My Family Opened Up
Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: I stopped listening to my parents around age 12 and then decided to start hearing them again at about 25. I barely made it out of those thirteen years alive, and yes, mom, you were right about all the things.
After the conference, I went home had a long conversation with my mom. As the kind woman she is, my mom rarely interrupts me when we chat. I, on the other hand, have one million opinions to share with her, and always find a way to jab them into the middle of her sentences. Of course, when we started talking, I did this right away. The difference was that this time I caught myself and shut up. We both noticed the correction, and my mom happily went on. She shared some fascinating stories with me from her childhood I’d never heard before, and probably never would have if I’d changed the course of conversation after 20 seconds.
3. My Relationship Shifted
It can be jarring when someone goes from a conversation hog to an intent listener. When I changed my ways, my fiancé was dumbfounded. I always thought he was just quieter than me, but it turns out I was just dominating the conversation! The things you learn when you realize you have things to learn. Sigh.
4. My Friends Started Listening Too
If you overheard a conversation between my best friends and me, you might assume that we are in a group therapy session, yet we already know all the answers. Sentences are punctuated with animated interruptions, words fly like ping-pong balls, and breaths are only taken when sipping a drink.
I knew that my friends would be my hardest challenge. I just want to make them laugh! I just want to share my wisdom as it comes to me that very moment! I quickly learned, however, that conscious listening has a rippling affect. For the first time in years, I considered carefully everything my friends said to me. I didn’t assume I knew what was best for them based on all those ex-boyfriends. I didn’t assume I’d heard every story from college. I kept my mouth shut and my mind quiet. And it was bizarre.
At first, my friends were uncomfortable with my lack of interruptions. Was I tired? Not listening? Angry? This was all very new. Next, they quickly became self-conscious of how much they were talking. Without an interruption every twenty seconds their thoughts were never-ending until it was noticeable they’d been talking a very long time. But I kept quiet until they stopped, and when I did offer my opinion, it felt like the weight of my words was 50 times heavier. My friends were attentive! They didn’t interrupt me! And through this, we created a lively—but thoughtful—conversation that made us all feel appreciated and listened to.
5. I Felt Calmer
While I never knew there was any other way before, I’ve now learned that it’s stressful for your mind to always keep your next thought at the tip of your tongue. I like to consider myself a quick thinker with a lot to say, but silencing my thoughts gives me so much more brain space to think. Instead of living in my own head, I can live in someone else’s, and it’s nice in there—a whole new world! I have a way to go with this practice, but I’m trying every day.
Have you ever considered the way you listen to people? How do you remain as present as possible?