Have you ever found yourself sitting across the table in conversation, nodding, seemingly listening to what the other person is saying?
Meanwhile, you’re going over your to-do list in your head: Send that email, pick up items for dinner at the grocery store, check the status of that delivery you are expecting….
A pause ensues and your conversation partner looks at you expectantly, waiting for a reply. You realize you stopped paying attention a while ago to what they were saying! Oops.
We have all been there. You have likely experienced both scenarios—checking out on the conversation, as well as not feeling heard. Both scenarios are not ideal and can leave us feeling disconnected.
If your mind tends to wander, you’re not alone. While completing his Ph.D. at Harvard University, researcher Matt Killingsworth found that our mind wanders a minimum of 30% of the time (except during sex, when it wanders just 10% of the time).
Staying present and focused on a conversation takes effort, but it’s well worth it. Practicing mindful listening can be a game-changer for how you engage in conversation and participate in your relationships, as I’ve learned firsthand over many years of teaching mindfulness and yoga.
Here’s what I’ve learned about how to do it—and how to apply it in various dating scenarios.
First, let’s define mindful listening.
Mindful listening is trying to listen to another person consciously or deliberately. Participating in mindful listening demonstrates that you are actively engaged in the conversation and encourages a person to share their perspective.
It is listening on purpose.
Practicing mindful listening can help you stay focused and present in all the conversations you have (from personal to professional). If you have trouble staying focused, mindful listening can offer an easy way to increase your capacity for listening in a compassionate and non-judgment way.
Benefits of mindful listening
Mindful listening can also be used to build deeper connection and rapport within a relationship. It is a serious bonus when we feel that we have someone’s full attention. Having another person’s attention makes us feel respected and helps us feel that what we say matters. When we feel that we have been truly heard, it strengthens our bond to each other and increases feelings of connection and support.
Mindful listening also creates awareness. Increasing your ability to be present in the moment also increases your ability to focus without distraction on what is being shared. When both people listen with attention—and intention—a foundation of trust is built.
Practical tips for mindful listening
Scenario: You are bored with the conversation, and your body language is likely showing it.
Technique: Make a meaningful shift. Our bodies can influence our state of mind. Changing your body posture can help increase your attention and focus. Show the speaker that you are listening with non-verbal body language that shows that you care.
- Show you are open and receptive to the conversation by sitting up straight with both feet on the floor and maintaining a relaxed posture. Have your face and heart positioned toward the speaker.
- To convey empathy and the fact that you care about what the speaker has to say, be sure to nod your head and offer encouraging sounds like, “Yes,” “Mmm-hmm,” and “A-ha…”
- Actively engage in the conversation by leaning forward slightly and maintaining eye contact.
Scenario: You can tell that your date is nervous.
Technique: Breathe! Breath can seriously impact our state of being. To help someone feel calm and supported, maintain a steady breathing pattern. This nonverbally cues others to slow their breathing down, too. When breathing is slow and exhales are longer, it is easier to access a state of relaxation and calm in the body. In this state, conversation flows more smoothly and freely.
- Make sure your breathing is not shallow (also known as chest breathing). Take big deep breaths, sending the breath low into your belly. Keep your exhales longer than your inhales to help induce a state of calmness.
Scenario: Your date is moving past the surface stuff and into deeper conversation.
Technique: Matchy-matchy. Everyone has a cadence and rhythm to how they speak. Be aware and notice when that cadence changes. The speaker may get louder or more excited, or they may become quieter or pause more often. A change in rhythm or cadence usually indicates they are now telling you something important to them.
- Notice and match their rhythm with an equal level of response. That can look like a more enthusiastic nod, a closer lean, or a quiet pause that matches the tone or rhythm of what they are saying.
Scenario: You are worried about what you are supposed to say next.
Technique: Practice the pause. Many people are uncomfortable with pauses, dips, or lulls in conversation. Creating a greater understanding and tolerance for silence can really change the quality of conversation.
Everyone has a different style of speaking. Some people speak more slowly and think more. Others speak quickly and interrupt a lot. Being aware of this and allowing someone time to process and speak at a pace that is comfortable to them—without interruption—can be very empowering.
- Remember to honor a pause so you do not interrupt. To help clarify whether the person speaking is finished, gently ask, “Are you finished with your thought?”
Scenario: You want to let your date know that you have been actively listening.
Technique: Reflect. Reflection makes a big difference. Making the effort to reflect back what you heard (whether that is how they feel or a fact they shared) shows the quality of your attuned and attentive listening.
- Make sure to use your own words and paraphrase when reflecting back.
Knowing how to mindfully listen can be incredibly rewarding and engaging for both parties. Mindful listening is also the way we earn the privilege to be listened to as well.