The Power of Deep Listening

“The intention of deep listening and loving speech is to restore communications, because once communication is restored, everything is possible.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

I’ll bet that you can relate to this scenario: It’s a beautiful Saturday fall morning. You are sitting across from a close friend in an outdoor café, thrilled to be catching up in person after so long. You begin to share a story of something that’s happened to you recently, a story that makes you feel particularly vulnerable. Then, there’s a *ding,* and your friend’s face, once so intently focused on you, is now looking at her Apple watch.

Your friend mentions she probably should quickly respond to her child/partner/colleague… and when she eventually looks back up and nods to indicate that you should continue your story, the moment is lost. Her attention, suddenly focused elsewhere, undermines the moment of connection. If moments of deep connection are not nurtured between friends, strong bonds can weaken.  A study published in September 2021 in ScienceDaily shares these findings from the University of Bonn, Germany: “Researchers have now discovered how loneliness is associated with reduced trust.” And that, “Behind this feeling (of loneliness) is the perceived discrepancy of the need for social relationships not being met to the desired degree.”

Rising levels of distractedness have been setting off alarm bells. With technologies constantly connecting us to what’s happening outside of the present moment, it’s no wonder it can be challenging to pay attention. Mindfulness apps and workshops have become ubiquitous, sharing tips and tools for staying focused on the present. At the core of this issue, however, is strengthening our ability to listen, really listen, to what others have to say.

“Humans are wired to listen to stories.”

Monica Brady-Myerov

Monica Brady-Myerov, a long-time reporter for NPR affiliate WBUR in Boston, is a natural storyteller.  Once she became a parent, she realized how listening is so strongly connected to literacy, learning and human connection. With her younger daughter struggling to read, Monica nurtured her daughter’s listening skills, enabling her to become a stronger student, then a student leader, and now a thriving college freshman. In time, Monica left her career in public radio to create a company dedicated to helping educators teach and strengthen listening skills.

Monica recognizes that strong listening skills are important beyond the classroom. They set students up for a lifetime of connection with others. Good listening takes self-awareness. Monica’s recent book is called Listen Wise: Teach Students to be Better Listeners. The book includes a reflective class activity called, “Building Your Listening Profile.” She’s also been part of the movement to elevate listening skills in education and helped launch the Lexile Framework for Listening, which was released in Fall 2020.

As adults, how can we make sure we are giving our friends the attentive listening they deserve, and we receive that in return? For starters, we can benefit from reflecting on our ‘listening profiles.’ Monica’s book encourages students to “Think about behaviors that keep them from being good listeners.” In my case, I’m often guilty of glancing at my phone while talking with my kids. If I am honest about my listening profile, my challenges with intently listening to others goes deeper than that. I was raised by parents who often shied away from discussing uncomfortable topics. These communication norms emerged from my parents’ own devout Catholic and reserved upbringing. It later affected how they communicated with me and my siblings, making it challenging for us to feel heard and understood.

Being truly heard leads to understanding and connection, foundations for support when we experience challenges we wish to share with friends. Based on her vulnerability research, social scientist Bréne Brown says: “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” In addition to reflecting on the work we need to do to become better listeners, we may also have to better advocate for how we wish to be heard. Sharing our communication needs may make us uncomfortable, but it can help strengthen connection and trust. And it’s entirely possible your friend is not really aware of her Apple watch habit. Let her know of your need to feel heard, making sure to express this with humility, grace and understanding. You’ll find the moment of discomfort will quickly pass, allowing a deeper friendship to emerge.

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