LISTENING EXERCISES

Here are some useful exercises to explore the art of listening with others. They each address different aspects of listening.  Do try these at home and with your friends and co-workers who know you are trying to improve your listening skills. 

EMPTYING THE JUG

When a friend, partner, child or someone you know well is overwhelmed by too much going on in their head or heart, they need to “empty the jug” of what is causing them to be over full. I liken it to a corked jug with a sparkling beverage that has to let off gas and bubbles before you can get to the good stuff, like burping a baby.

Listening skills practiced:

  • Being present and focused
  • Allowing silence
  • Refraining from speaking
  • Becoming aware of your own impulsive habits
  • Communicating empathy with your heart instead of words
  • Not taking responsibility for fixing someone’s story
  • Becoming aware of differing emotions
  • Seeing the power of listening for diffusing emotions
  • Seeing how easily with no advice or story you can help someone return to their own calm spot.

Activity:

You will simply be asking twelve questions and saying “thank you” to the answers.

You allow the other person to take their time answering, allowing for silence, confusion, tears, shouting. You simply are a sounding board, a receiver for what the person is “emptying.” You have to let go of making any response. You must be present, body open, your heart engaged with theirs. You can help them express and organize their busy heads and empty their raging or sad hearts/gas by asking these questions, in the following order. You say nothing else. You tell them ahead of time that you will not be saying anything. 

  1. “What are you mad about?” Let them say all they want to say about what they are mad about. When there is a pause, say “Thank you,” then
  2. “What else are you mad about?” Let them say it. When they say there isn’t anything else they are mad about say “thank you,” then
  3. “If there were one more thing you were mad about, what would it be? “ Let them say it, or not, say “Thank you,” then

      4-12.  Repeat the same sequence replacing “mad” with (in this order) Sad, scared, then finally glad, ending with gratitude and hopefulness. Very powerful what happens.

Your silence creates a vacuum for others to fill The key is to stay present and keep listening. The silence of holding steady is different from the silence of holding back.
— Ronald A. Heifetz, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World

ASKING QUESTIONS GETTING TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER

When we ask questions as an open listener, we are striving to help the other person get to the heart of the matter for them. Often surface things seem like they are the key issue when really it is something deep underneath that is the issue, and try as someone may to solve a problem or make a decision based on surface issues it is never satisfying.

When listening in a more natural way than in this exercise, you will use different questions but the intent is the same as with this one question you will ask over and over.

Listening skills practiced:

  • Helping  them follow their own course of thinking
  • Being a servant to the other’s journey
  • Using the power of a simple question to unlock deep underlying truths for the other
  • Silent listening
  • Getting your own story out of the way/limiting habits
  • Listening for interests, core values, meaning
  • Seeing beyond the presenting story

 Activity:

Work with someone who is unclear about something, needs to make a decision, is mad but not sure why, is lost in life, needs to figure out what they want to do in life, etc.  

Simply ask “What is it that you want (to have happen/in your wildest imagination/if you could have anything you wanted)?  

They answer. Then you say, “If you had [their answer], what would that allow for/allow you to do/have/feel?”

They answer. Then you repeat “If you had [their answer], what would that allow for/allow you to do/have/feel?”

And on and on until they get to the core value or interest that is irreducible.

SILENT LISTENING

One of the hardest things to do in modern western cultures is to allow for silence in a conversation. We are programmed for noise, for talking. When there is silence we become uncomfortable and seek to fill it in with words, clearing our throats, asking a question, telling our story, etc. And yet, it is in the silence that we access our deepest wisdom. When we become deep listeners, we know that silence is the moment when magic happens.

Listening skills practiced:

  • Allowing for silence
  • Seeing how the other person will access wisdom on their own simply by having a witness
  • Resisting falling into our habitual responses/habits
  • Communicating with our hearts and bodies

 Seeing how someone follows their own “mind map” naturally when not steered in another direction by our controlling questions and comments.

Simply listen to someone without saying anything. Fill the “empty” space with your heart presence, be physically open and available. You may nod your head and smile, but not laugh or make comments. Let them talk. Tell them ahead of time that you will not say anything and want them to just hold forth. Tell them that you are really listening and that silences are fine.

INTERVIEWING THE OTHER GUY

There are many perspectives to any story. We are also often blind to our own perspectives and behavior and can’t see it. However, if we were to get inside someone else’s eyes and heart and saw the world from their perspective, we could get a wider, new perspective. This exercise also allows you to understand someone you might not understand. “Anger is lack of understanding.” (Thich Naht Hahn)

Listening skills practiced:

  • Seeing multiple perspectives
  • Accessing compassion
  • Gaining neutrality
  • Interviewing questions

 Activity:

Ask another person to interview you as you play someone you do not understand or are in conflict with. Have them ask this Other Person questions pertaining to the issue that you both share. They should also ask questions about you of the Other Person, so that you can access/guess at how that person sees you. You will also begin to see how the other person feels and what they need. It helps you get out of an impasse.

He did it (listened) as the world’s most charming and magnetic people do, always asking the right question at the right time, never fidgeting or taking his eyes from the speaker’s face, making the other guy feel like the most knowledgeable, brilliant, and intellectually savvy person on the planet.
— Stephen King

LISTENING TO YOUR BODY

This exercise can/should be done every time you feel a difficult emotion to help you get clear. You do not need to analyze things, you simply need to release the tension or other feeling in your body associated with the thoughts and you will begin to feel better and think different thoughts.

Listening skills practiced:

  • Deep focusing and paying attention
  • Awareness of the body and its expressions
  • Noticing that simple attention is listening
  • Body language
  • Silent listening
  • Breathing

 Activity:

Instead of trying to talk yourself out of or ignore a bad feeling, see it as an opportunity to heal it. Sit down some place quiet. Close your eyes. Focus your mind’s eye on your body, first the outside then the inside. Pretend to ‘see” from inside your body. Go to places that feel tense or are otherwise experiencing the physical ramifications of the emotion. Simply observe with soft eyes the sensation in your body, without judging or analyzing. Just see it, and invite it to dissipate. Be patient. If it is painful to stay here, breathe deeply and let the breathe ease/dissipate the sensation. You may feel energy releasing, blood flowing. Observe the sensations as they shift from you simply paying attention.

When you are listening to another person without talking you are giving this same healing attention.