I snatched the phone up from its cradle as soon as it rang. A Pavlovian response; ringing phone, pick it up. But reacting to a ringing phone like this doesn’t necessarily put us in a responsive frame of mind. It certainly doesn’t mean I am in the best position to hear what the person has to say to me.
Like you, I have always been able to tell when people are not present with me; when they are either not listening because they are distracted or interrupting me. Since practicing mindfulness, I am very much aware of when I am on the point of doing this or am doing it.
The first thing I noticed when I started practicing mindfulness was that I began to turn my full attention to someone when they came to my desk to talk with me. I was really present and I could tell I was present because I was quiet inside. I wasn't listening to reply, I wasn't judging them or their ideas, I was simply hearing them. And I wasn't consciously choosing to be in that present state when they arrived at my desk; I was just there, with them, in that moment.
I also noticed the times when I wasn't present when someone was talking to me and began to tell them so. I now say "sorry, I wasn't listening, can you start again please?" when I know I am giving the computer more attention than them because I haven't finished the task I was doing when they started speaking.
If we listen to understand, we send the message - you are important, you matter.
Generally people speak of listening at one of three levels (listening with internal reference – hearing from your perspective, judgement, or interpretation; listening logically – focusing on their words, hearing what is said but missing the intent or; empathetic listening – taking in their words, intent and energy, attempting to see things from the talker's point of view (1)).
But I think there may be at least 5 levels of listening:
Not listening - distracted by something so much that you are ignoring the other
Pretend listening - distracted but can say "I see" and even repeat what was said if asked
Selective hearing – we listen to what we like, agree or are interested in and probably nod our heads unconsciously.
Internal reference listening – we listen with our minds as well as our ears, deciding if we agree or not with what is being said, waiting for the gap to say our view, how what they said is like us or to pass judgement (usually negative).
Listening holistically – we are present with the speaker. Our minds are quiet. We are listening to understand the message that is being given and we take in not just the words but the tone and body language as well as as observing our own internal response.
Why this matters
If we are not present with a person then true communication does not take place. The message might be sent but because we are occupied with ourselves in some way, we do not receive what was given nor do we connect with the other person.
I suspect if we do not listen at level 5 we distance the other in some way rather than connect.
Think back to moments when you were ignored, parroted, judged, trumped or interrupted, I am sure they weren't times you felt respected or recognised and I bet that has happened in work, home and social contexts.
If we ignore - the message we send is you have nothing of value to me.
If we parrot - we belittle the speaker.
If we judge (whether internally or externally) - we do not hear the message.
If we respond from a point of self-reference - we're not deepening the connection and again belittle the other.
If we interrupt - we have taken their moment from them.
If we truly listen to understand, we send the message - you are important, you matter.
How do you listen holistically?
This is not easy and takes effort. We need to use our self-observation lens. Many times we'll find we have slipped from level 5 to level 4 maybe even level 3.
You have to hold yourself in the moment and use mindful practices to keep yourself there. To do this you can use sensations in the body to maintain presence just like during a body scan meditation.
Stay present by paying attention to sensations of where your feet touch the floor, to your body on the chair especially if you are on the point of telling them why they are wrong, what to do or the time you did it better.
A trick for myself is to nod my head when I notice I am about to speak; in the moment I catch myself about to open my mouth, I step back into being present with the speaker.
As I practice being present with everyone these days, this includes those who call me. So now when the phone rings instead of rushing to pick it up, I place my hand on it (touch), breathe into my feet (pause) and pick it up (engage).
1. Burley-Allen, M. 1995, Listening: the forgotten skill: a self-teaching guide (Wiley Self-Teaching Guides Book 144) Canada, John Wiley & Sons,Inc.