Are you really listening? (Conscious Communication part 1)

When someone is talking to you, how often are you 100% tuned into what they are saying? Sharon Salzberg, New York Times bestselling author and teacher of Buddhist meditation, uses the phrase “continuous partial attention” to describe our default state of being. We are pulled in many directions simultaneously and nothing ever has our full attention. We are rarely fully present with anything or anyone, whether that be a patient, a staff member or a loved one. Think of how many disagreements could be avoided, or how much more success we could have in our interactions if we fully listened to what the other person was trying to tell us. Mindful listening, like mindfulness itself, is a practice.  The more we put our attention on it, the better we can become.

In his book, The Road Home, Ethan Nichtern outlines four common obstacles to listening well. The first is distraction. We are pulled in many directions. We are in conversation with a patient and the hygienist is trying to get our attention for an exam, the front desk is buzzing in that we have a phone call, and our mind is already on the difficult case that we know is coming in an hour. With all that is going on at any given time, it’s a wonder that we hear anything the patient in front of us is saying. Think of how much we are likely missing!

Technology has introduced a whole new set of distractions into our daily lives. We have a physical presence and a virtual one and these two are in a constant tug of war.  We can be physically present with a person that may be annoyed if we are on our phone, yet that same person in another space is irritated when we don’t respond to a text or email they sent us within what they deem an acceptable window of time. We have to set comfortable limits and guidelines for these occurrences.

The second barrier to listening is the fear of pain. We have anxiety about what we might hear, so we make an effort to hear very little. We actively tune out of what is being said for fear we don’t have the right tools to respond to it with confidence. We try to avoid what we know will be difficult as we immaturely seek to live without pain. It is important to accept that some level of pain is not avoidable, and we must learn the tools to deal with uncomfortable conversations as they arise.  

The next obstacle to mindful listening is the desire to tell your own story. When the other person is talking and sharing, our mind has jumped to our own experience that is similar. Rather than letting the person finish, we interrupt and share our own story. In this instance, our intentions may be good, but what we are really doing is hijacking the other person’s experience.  

The fourth obstacle is wanting to give advice. This is a really hard one for us dentists because we feel that is the job and we often try to cut to the chase. Of course our job is to make recommendations to the patient, but it is important that we hear the whole story first so that we can make an appropriate recommendation. Because of what we do all day, we dentists can very easily let this habit of advice giving bleed over into our personal lives. We think that everyone that is talking to us wants advice. A good rule of thumb is to listen first, and only give advice if we are directly asked for it. A lot of the time, the other person just wants to be heard. Mindfully listening is a wonderful gift that you give another person. Withhold advice unless asked.

Being a good listener requires that you use your awareness to recognize when you have drifted away from the object of your attention, and then consciously bringing your attention back to that person.  The more we practice this drifting back and forth, the more we can learn to be present. Practice being with what is being said first, and then second chiming in with what isn’t there yet. When we really tune in and listen with the intention of understanding, we can meet everyone’s needs and it’s less likely that there will be misunderstandings.  Listening to understand will make all of your relationships more successful.

Be sure to read part 2 in Dawn’s series on conscious communication entitled “The Three Gates.”

Dawn Kulongowski is the owner and sole practitioner of a thriving dental practice in Michigan, where she lives with her husband, daughter and 2 dogs. She is the owner and teacher for The Peaceful Practice LLC, specializing in teaching meditation practice, mindfulness and conscious communication skills to health care and legal professionals.