The Forgotten Secret to Powerful Connection: Deep Listening



Reading Time: 8mins

Image of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin via  @pinterest .

Image of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin via @pinterest.

The forgotten secret to powerful connection is deep listening.  Real connection has much more to do with listening than with talking. In fact, by listening you are talking to the other person. You are saying: ‘You have my attention. You matter. You are a person’.  


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Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is a global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist, revered throughout the world for his powerful teachings and bestselling writings on mindfulness and peace.
Deep Listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it ‘compassionate listening’. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty their heart. You listen not for the purpose of judging, criticizing or analyzing. You listen only to help the other person to express himself and find some relief from his suffering.
— Thich Nhat Hanh*

How many of us can honestly say, this is how we listen on a day-to-day basis?  Especially if we are under pressure, annoyed, or need something from the other person? If you feel you need to grow in this area, I've put together a list of six steps that can help you deepen your own listening...

  1. FIRST, START WITH THE INTENTION TO LISTEN.  This means that you make a conscious decision to listen more to others. You can even ask yourself if there is somebody you would like to listen to more. In order to really listen you have to be present. You need to show the other person he/she has your undivided attention. We tend to listen in order to respond. While the other person is talking we are already working out what we are going to say in return. In conflict situations, this gets even worse – as we start planning our counter-attack. If you are planning your come-back, your intention is not to listen, it is to win. Steven Covey’s fifth habit of highly effective people is seeking first to understand and only then to be understood. This means that you incorporate what the other person is saying into your own thinking.  
  2. SECONDLY, KNOW WHAT YOUR CHALLENGES ARE. What gets in the way of your ability to listen? Maybe you believe you don’t have time. Maybe you feel irritated or anxious. Maybe you feel intimidated or perhaps superior. You could even feel bored. It’s hard to admit but too often we want to control a conversation, so we can control the outcome. Even when we have ‘good’ intentions like wanting to help or to earn someone's trust, we come with an agenda geared toward serving our own needs. You can see how knowing what your challenges are will help you notice when you are being pulled away from really listening. 
  3. THIRDLY, COACH YOURSELF BACK INTO LISTENING TO THE PERSON. Even a good listener’s attention will tend to drift. Develop a mantra that will encourage you to keep listening. Something like: ‘There’s nothing I need to do right now. All I have to do is to listen’. Or if you are anxious about time, say: ‘It’s okay. I have enough time to listen.’ It can also be useful to have an anchor that can help you stay present and focused. Focusing on your breath, feeling your hands on your lap, or if it’s appropriate, looking in the other person’s eyes can help bring you back to your intention to be present and listen. 
  4. FOURTH, DON’T TRY TOO HARD. Setting the intention to really listen doesn’t mean that you have to force yourself and it certainly doesn’t mean that you have to do it perfectly. Ask yourself how it would be if it were easy to listen. I would describe listening as allowing something rather than doing or being something. Thich Nhat Hanh says that we should listen with the sole intention to help the other person empty his heart. Let go of what you think you should be or do. I, for example, have to let go of the impulse to give advice or offer solutions right away. In order to help myself resist this temptation, I remind myself to listen with my heart instead of my head.  Ask yourself what the other person is trying to tell you and try to pick up with your heart how he/she is feeling while talking to you.
  5. FIFTH, HAVE AN 'US' APPROACH. We tend to see ourselves as separate from the other person. In conflict situations especially, we tend to polarise and think, ‘it’s me against you’. Having an 'us' approach doesn’t mean you have to agree with the other person, it only means that you see his/her experiences as real. We all have the need to be heard and to feel safe when we talk. It is painful to feel unheard and it can often leave one feeling lost and lonely. I think that this why Thich Nhat Hanh says that we can relieve the other person’s suffering if we listen with compassion. To help with this you can ask yourself how you want it to feel between the two of you. Some examples could be: compassionate, peaceful, calm, warm, connected, easy, clear, focused, dignified, and respectful. An easy way to remember this step is to use Steven Covey’s fourth habit ‘Think win-win’. 
  6. AND FINALLY, THE SIXTH STEP IS TO REFLECT ON THE CONVERSATION. You may feel that your listening is not making any difference in the moment and you may want to give up. To help with this self-doubt, take some time after the conversation to reflect on what you noticed. This is not to judge whether you were a good or bad listener, but rather to notice what effect your intention to listen had. People tell me that having the intention to listen gives them something to focus on and relieves nervousness or anxiety. They also report feeling significantly calmer during and after the exchange. 
A surprising effect of deeper listening is that the other person spontaneously starts talking about things the listener was thinking about, or even anxious to talk about. This shows that deep listening brings a connection without having to say or do anything! 

There will be times when it will feel impossible to remain as mindful as these six steps suggest —especially when you run into conflict with someone else unexpectedly. Or when the other person is aggressive or when you are feeling angry or misunderstood. Even so, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that we can still choose to listen, perhaps especially then.

Janie Loubser is a Clinical Psychologist with a postgraduate diploma in couples therapy.