Friday, August 2, 2013

The Active Listening Mindset: Focus

a vivid beauty.... by Vinoth Chandar, cc license
I used to tell my crisis hotline trainees that active listening begins before you pick up the phone. Meaning that in order to do active listening well, it’s important to approach it with the right mindset. Profound conversations occur when you are able to fully attend, respect autonomy, and leave judgment out of it. My original intent had been to cover these three areas in one primer post, but it soon became clear that each deserved its own space. Working towards the right mindset for active listening takes just as much work (perhaps more) as acquiring the other listening skills. We begin with focus.  

Why focus?

Keeping in mind that the primary goal of active listening is to make the person you are listening to feel heard and understood, giving that task your complete attention is the first step to doing it well. Jason, Cadence, and I sit down for a family dinner just about every night. We usually talk about our days, but sometimes Jason and I attempt to discuss a more serious issue or a decision that needs to be made. (If you have ever had dinner with a toddler, you are probably thinking, “Well that won’t work…” – and you’re right.) After five minutes of “adult” conversation, Cadence inevitably begins making loud animal noises, throws her food, or simply says, “Stop talking. You’re hurting my ears.” These conversations are doomed and almost always have to be tabled for later in the evening.

Interruptions pull you out of the flow of conversation, which makes the interaction much longer and inefficient. It also clearly conveys to the other person that they are not your first priority at the moment. Even when Jason and I are both aware of her immediate needs, we can still feel frustrated and shoved aside when one of us interrupts the other to attend to Cadence. Conversely, when we make time to talk without distractions (i.e., when Cadence is sleeping), we can fully engage and sink into the conversation, allowing for deeper connection and understanding. By fully attending without distractions, you communicate how much you value the person you are talking to and the fact that what they have to say is important.

How to focus?

Focus is equal parts committing to being present and minimizing environmental distractions. Creating the right environment for active listening goes a long way to removing barriers to being present, so let’s start there. To the extent you can, your goal here is to avoid as many interruptions as possible. I often suggest scheduling important conversations at a time when, and in place where, you can ensure you won’t be interrupted, by coworkers or toddlers, for example. During the conversation, turn off any devices that will compete for your attention. Small things, like checking your phone to see who is calling even if you have no intention of answering or breaking eye contact to check the score of a game on a muted TV, can send the message that the person across from you is less important, which will sabotage your efforts.  These principles hold for all conversations, even when the other person can’t see you (e.g. talking over the phone).

Once you’ve removed environmental distractions, the challenge becomes disciplining your mind to stay focused on the present moment. Like yoga, this is something that can be practiced but rarely (never?) perfected. There are two places that your mind is most likely to wander: 1) Planning what you are going to say next, and 2) Reminders of things that have nothing to do with the conversation at hand. To counter the first, try to catch yourself when your mind starts running ahead of the conversation. Notice it without judging yourself harshly and then bring yourself back to the present by thinking the mantra, “I am here,” or by doing something subtle and physical, like tapping your knee twice. The same tactics can work for the second.

Another tool I’m fond of is old-fashioned pen and paper. I like to take notes during a conversation, even if it’s just to record a great book recommendation. I find that taking notes can keep me focused and present especially during longer, more complicated conversations. And, if something the person says happens to remind me of the wet load of laundry that’s been sitting in my washer, I can quickly jot down “laundry,” and come back to the conversation at hand.     

Practicing focus.

If you have been the receiver of someone’s undivided attention at a time when you really needed to talk, you know what a gift it is. This week, I challenge you to give that gift to someone. Schedule time on your calendar (20-30 minutes is good) to give someone in your life your undivided attention. Think about who could use this right now – a child? A partner? A friend? A coworker?

During the conversation, practice presence by using the “I am here” mantra, tapping your knee (or doing something similar), or taking notes.

Let me know how it goes!

Next in the Active Listening Primer: Respect 

The Active Listening Primer

Part 1: The Active Listening Mindset
Part 2: Basic Active Listening Skills
Bonus: Prompting Others to Actively Listen

Like what you're reading? Sign up for my Good In, Good Out E-Newsletter: A steady diet of good stuff to fuel your soul, mind, and body! 

You can also sign up HERE if you are not able to see the form, below. 

Subscribe to the Good In, Good Out newsletter:

* indicates required


  1. This was great! It is a wonderful feeling to not only receive someone's full attention but also to give it. It's hard to do in a world littered with cell phones begging for attention and everyone thinking you should respond right back but it really is a noticeable difference when technology takes a back seat. When I go out to dinner now, I turn my phone off/no ringer and just put it away. I am there for the dinner, to BE with my friend. It allows you to engage and relax.

  2. Rock on, Rayna! That reminds me of how therapeutic it was for ME back when I was volunteering on the crisis line. Putting everything else away for four hours at a time so that I could completely focus on the callers was freeing. It really was relaxing, in a way.