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Kathy Whelan

Posted on June 03, 2021

Just after Independence Day last year, I wrote an article about interdependence, the biological need for social interaction upon which our physical and mental health depend. In that context, I mentioned improving communication skills to nurture the high-quality relationships that confer the most health benefits by helping us feel connected instead of lonely.

Since then, my concern has spread to how we communicate in areas of our lives that we perceive to be outside our relationships, and how that affects us and others. It seems to me that our communications have deteriorated to the point where we rarely hear each other anymore.

This problem isn’t brand new. As I learned when I began training to be a health coach five years ago, we don’t always listen to each other skillfully. Often we engage in “self-focused” listening. Here’s what that looks like:

• Coming to a conversation with a busy mind, our devices near at hand

• Judging and categorizing what we hear, filtering the speaker’s words through our personal beliefs and past experiences

• Taking our attention off the speaker to think about how we will respond

• Especially when we know the speaker, thinking we know what someone will say before they say it

• Listening with a specific goal like trying to change the other person’s mind

This kind of listening, as I learned, is a no-no for coaches. I have come to believe it should be a no-no for everyone.

The opposite of self-focused listening is other-focused listening, which is based on the intention to hear another person from their perspective rather than our own. This doesn’t mean we have to agree with that person’s conclusions. We are simply allowing their perspective to be heard just as we would like ours to be heard when it’s our turn to speak. Other-focused listening looks like this:

• Eliminating distractions and clearing the mind of other concerns before the conversation

• “Beginner’s mind” or “not knowing,” taking the attitude that we know nothing of what the other person will say until we hear it in their own words

• Listening with non-judgmental curiosity from moment to moment

• Abandoning a zero-sum mindset so that one person’s gain is not necessarily the other’s loss

• Being comfortable with silence

Allowing for silence in other-focused listening does not mean remaining mute. Pausing for a few seconds simply gives the speaker time to gather his or her thoughts and perhaps add new ones.

Other-focused listening should be active listening. Ask questions to clarify the speaker’s meaning. Open-ended questions (those beginning with “how” or “what”) are likely to elicit more than yes-no questions. “Why” questions are tricky because they can make people defensive. Reflect or paraphrase what you’ve heard to be sure you’ve interpreted it correctly. Interrupt rarely if at all.

Skillful speaking is important, too. Be aware if you are broadcasting a monologue rather than engaging in conversation. Avoid commanding, lecturing or shaming, which can be conversation-stoppers. Use “I” statements to make clear that you are speaking from your perspective only. Understand your motivations and intentions before you speak.

Mindfulness – paying attention to what is happening in the present moment with curiosity but without judgment – is at the heart of skillful communication. Like any form of mindfulness, skillful communication requires practice. You can begin by practicing just one or two of these skills. If you aren’t used to communicating this way, practice in low-stakes situations before using new skills in more difficult conversations or those with higher stakes.

Skillful communication can go a long way toward improving relationships at home and at work. My hope is that it could also succeed beyond those relationships in helping us bridge the growing number of canyons that divide us. In doing so, it would reduce the stress we feel from near-constant discord. This would not only improve our health but help each of us do our part to make the world a better place.

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