Listening to Understand When Receiving Feedback

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How do you listen to others? No, I don’t mean how do you perceive how you listen. I mean, actually, how do you listen to them? How do you know this to be true?

These are a few questions we were asked to work with at a mindful communication workshop at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

We were paired off with strangers, with one partner tasked with speaking and the other listening. In one part of the practice, the listener was tasked with trying to observe how they listen as they are listening. Did judgments or other thoughts arise? Did our mind drift? Did we feel uncomfortable sitting before another person and purely listening?

In a colorful meditation room, two cartoon people sit on meditation cushions and practice their ability to listen to understand.
Source: Cameron Conaway. Image created using Magic Media by Canva

In another part of the practice, the speaker was asked to provide feedback to the listener. How did they listen? Did they make non-verbal gestures or sounds such as “uh-huh” and “mmm” to convey their understanding?

In still another part of the practice, we moved into the dynamic phase of a back-and-forth conversation to develop an awareness of the nuances of how we shifted from speaker to listener. This led to more questions, like:

  • Do you notice you are listening (to signals like nonverbal gestures) even as you speak?
  • Do you feel more comfortable as a speaker or listener? Why might this be so?

We engaged in many related exercises throughout the day, all intending to develop awareness around how we communicate — listening being an especially crucial and often neglected part. It was the first time in my life, truly, that I had the chance to observe how I listen and even get feedback on it. Before this workshop, if somebody had asked me, “Are you a great listener?” or “How do you listen?” I probably would have answered, “I think so,” and “I try to listen with my full being.” Now, and after practicing many times in the years since this event, I have a much richer understanding of how I listen — including what mental or other barriers most often cause me to be a poor listener.

What is listening to understand?

Listening to understand means being so fully committed to listening to another person that you cannot judge or plan a response.

Think about that. It’s not that you don’t judge or don’t plan — both of which can be hard enough. It’s that you literally can’t do either because you are so immersed as a listener. Essentially, with this type of deep listening, you enter a kind of flow state of focused listening.

Regarding effective listening, this quote credited to Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium (334 BC – 262 BC) is often brought up:

“We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”

Some try to take this literally and consciously seek to be a listener twice as much as they talk — a kind of mental gymnastics that typically isn’t helpful and causes the well-intended listener to think about doing this rather than actually listening.

To build this ability to listen to understand, I highly recommend working through some of the exercises I mentioned. If you don’t have that ability, you might try to practice during particularly low-stress calls at work, reflecting afterward to see how it went.

Listening when receiving feedback

It’s one thing to listen in the relatively safe bubble of a mindful communication workshop, but it can be quite another to listen while receiving negative feedback. Why? Because, even if we take our general lack of feedback literacy off the table, negative feedback, in particular, can cause us to move from listening to understand into listening to:

  • defend ourself
  • judge the feedback giver
  • judge ourselves
  • prepare a response

As we covered in the Constructive Feedback course, much of the advice about receiving feedback involves making eye contact, smiling, and other actions that focus more on being perceived as a listener rather than actually being a listener.

One challenge of this, similar to the “listen twice as much” camp, is that it gives receivers somewhat arbitrary things to do rather than placing full attention on listening to understand.

So, a final question:

  • When will you begin practicing how you listen? Add it to your notebook or to-do list so it is prioritized.


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