When I did a Non-Violent Communication training in 2014, as part of my Ayurveda certification training, we had to do some active listening techniques. We were paired up and set timers for 20 minutes. During this time, the talker had the floor and the listener could only respond with nods, smiles etc. We were told this was to stop our natural tendency to either a) problem solve and help the listener and b) commiserate, offer understanding based on our own experiences, both of which occur as you are listening, stopping you from REALLY listening.

Sarah and I were given an emotional prompt (I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I talked about how my son having cancer had affected me and my partner talked about how she and her husband had struggled to conceive, and the miscarriages, and how that lead them to adoption). Needless to say, these were super emotional topics for both of us!

What was profound was how we both felt so held and respected and heard and our connection to each other shifted deeply.

In the yogic/ayurvedic understanding of our human form, we have koshas or sheaths, the layers of which are stacked inside each other like a Russian doll: physical body, energetic/breath body, mental body, intuitive body, bliss body. Our energetic body – the pranamayakosha – extends beyond our physical space. This we know and understand – when you walk into a room, you can feel whether the person in it is happy, sad, angry – their energy extends to you! When we are totally present (not an easy task), we can exchange energy and listen with our whole integrated self – our physical body might nod, our eyes might communicate understanding. This is what Sarah and I were doing as we listened to each other.

In most of our interactions, this is not so easy.

We are engaged in promotional or transactional conversations – promoting a viewpoint (e.g. can we eat Chinese tonight? The Toyota is better than the Ford for reliability) or transacting information (e.g. I will get the kids at 3pm, okay?). In these conversations our brain’s natural proclivity to efficiency means that we are perceiving, evaluating input, making judgments and predicting outcomes all at the same time! Add to this the multi-tasking nature and over-stimulation of our current world and you have a recipe for never really, deeply, actively listening.

My natural desire to understand why that active listening technique I learned in 2014 was so profound was shut down because less than two weeks after returning from that training, my ex-husband walked out for the fourth and final time and the next few years were a flurry of moving, divorcing and lawyers and navigating our kids

Fast-forward to today and I am the Chief Habit Scientist: a published author, coach and speaker and I find that the habit of listening is deeply woven into my life. What’s interesting to me is that to listen deeply requires us to break our brain’s natural habit of efficiency. Habits are my jam. I love helping my clients establish habits that will serve them – channeling the brains natural efficiency. I also know that breaking habits is extremely hard – we know that from the addiction literature and the neuroscience (the myelination, like insulation, thickens as we repeat a habit, creating automation of a habit).

So – how can we navigate our brain’s natural tendency to efficiency and have those truly transformative conversations that yield deep connection between the participants and evolution for the individuals involved?

  1. Meditate: I could and have written pages about the myriad benefits of meditation, but here it’s about cultivating one-pointed focus and the practice of letting go and returning to the present.
  2. Journal: we are unaware of our inner monologue. Journaling allows us to see how we talk to ourselves, or think about other people, which is good to get a handle on, if you are going to listen without judgment.
  3. Stop multi-tasking & get outside: walk in nature. It reduces stress and boosts mood (especially depressive tendencies) which are important to get a handle on if you are going to listen to someone else.
  4. Do new exercises: get used to creating new mind-body habits (that involve all the sheaths of the body) and the resultant neural connections (rather than re-living old habits). Iyengar yoga is brilliant for this (can I press into the big toe mound and the outer heel, is it the same in both my feet? – while you are in a pretzel-ed position). Or take up a new activity – like tap dancing!
  5. Use the active listening technique with a timer: get together and set the topic and the timer. After each person has finished you can then reflect on the experience and ask them if they want input.