Mindfully listening

Mindfully listening is a highly interactive process in which a listener interacts with others in a community, including one or more speakers. It is important that a listener's actions do not disrupt the fluency of others' cultural enactments. To be mindful while listening is to ensure that emotions do not affect ongoing conduct in a deleterious way, but the listener maintains focus on stream of spoken words, while utilizing all senses to monitor what is happening throughout the field. The heuristic contains 17 characteristics of mindfulness, which together constitute a process skill that can be learned and enacted in science and subsequently used as a central part of functional literate citizenry. That is, it is essential that participants in social life listen and speak mindfully.

While listening to the spoken words a mindful listener makes eye contact with the speaker occasionally and monitors eye gaze. Paying attention to the speaker's eyes provides a listener with information about the speaker's convictions and his/her emotional state.

Looking at the speaker and participating synchronously in a non-obtrusive, nonverbal manner is the means by which listeners can show their respect of a speaker. For example, when a listener nods his/her head as a sign of attentiveness, the head nod is assigned to the speaker that the listener is making sense and is encouraging further input from the speaker. Tacitly, a nod of the head is a sign that what is being said is being followed with understanding. Actions for the synchronous unlikely to be received as respectful where is asynchrony is likely to disrupt the flow of cultural enactment and maybe seeing as disrespectful. If it's to intervene, to speak over or to interrupt the speaker would be obvious examples of disrespectful actions.

When violence is delivered via speech in a context of an activity that was supposed to be dialogic, interventions to disrupt the flow of enactment, that is continued speech, are warranted. Initially this might simply involve shaking the head, frowning at the speaker, moving the hand to signal that cessation of speaking is suggested, etc. If the speaker continues to inflict violence by speaking inappropriately then an intervention that involves interrupting the speaker through verbal actions might be considered "right conduct." The important point to stress is that mindful listening involves active monitoring of what is being said in a context of all that is happening. If individuals in the community of participants are distressed by what is being said that in a compassionate and empathetic stance would likely involve an intervention to cease the social violence. There is not a formula to apply to decide whether disruption through verbal actions are warranted – it is a judgment call.

Compassion and empathy are constituents of mindful practice. As an active process, listening should embrace compassion to all participants, including self. What this entails is to provide courtesy to the speaker and encouragement to communicate fluently and effectively. A mindful listener who shows compassion would feel a speaker's suffering, evident in a shared mood, that is, synchronous expression of emotions – especially empathy for others. The expression to walk in another's shoes springs to mind in thinking about a listen at showing compassion for a speaker. The actions of the listener would involve inner speech and nonverbal expression of emotion, the latter being visible to all participants in the dialogue, but especially focused on the speaker. Another thought is that compassion has a meaning of expressing a feeling of empathy for others. Accordingly, compassion and empathy are interconnected. In terms of expressing compassion for oneself it is almost as if the first person I expresses empathy for the suffering of the third person me. To get the full sense of what is intended I find it useful to think of Ricoeur's idea of oneself as another.

Consistent with the ideas that listening should be respectful and compassionate is the condition but listeners can orientate themselves to notice differences and regard them as resources for personal learning and the accomplishment of collective goals. This stance stands in stark contrast to one in which one's personal ideas are privileged over others' different ideas. That is, instead of difference being regarded through deficit frameworks, difference is viewed as expansive, and affordance for producing successful outcomes.

If a listener looks at the speaker it is possible to monitor facial expression of emotions continuously. Since humans frequently express a range of emotions facially the interpretation of oral texts can be expanded by factoring in the emotions associated with verbal utterances. Consistent with the idea that a mindful listener would focus on the spoken words is the added condition that all senses would be used to capture what is happening in the moment. The key about mindful listening is staying in the moment and being aware of all that is happening. To some degree mindful listening can be thought of within a framework of reflexivity – in which listeners become aware of the unaware. In this case the resources available for constructing meaning about verbal texts are greatly expanded by the listener's attention to facial expression of emotion, gestures, head movements, and body movements and orientations. Importantly, expanded awareness opens up the possibilities for acting synchronously and thereby fostering entrainment and solidarity through engagement in dialogue.

Consistent with William Sewell's frameworks about culture, patterns having thin coherence coexist with contradictions. Being mindful while listening can involve a search for both the patterns and the contradictions, taking into account an expanded repertoire of actions that include more than just words. For example, prosody, proxemics, and the hermeneutic analyses of the spoken words can be objects for analysis and interpretation in an ongoing way as a speaker delivers an oral text.

Mindful listening is a constituent of mindfulness and can be regarded as dialectically related to being mindful while participating in all activities.

Figure 1

Mindfully listening heuristic

When others are speaking in a dialogic conversation:

  • I monitor the eyes of the speaker
  • I show my respect for the speaker
  • I express my opposition verbally and nonverbally to unethical speech
  • While listening to others my nonverbal actions project compassion and empathy to the speaker
  • When a speaker says something with which I disagree I try to learn from the difference
  • I make sense of the speaker's facial expressions of emotion
  • I make sense of the speaker's gestures
  • I nod my head as a sign of attentiveness
  • Following each utterance I provide an appropriate pause to ensure that the speaking turn is finished
  • When necessary I seek clarification of the meaning of an utterance
  • When necessary I request elaboration so as to expand the meaning of an utterance
  • When necessary I check my understanding of what has been said
  • I ensure that my nonverbal actions do not breach the fluency of what is being said
  • I use nonverbal actions to provide emotional synchrony with spoken text
  • I ensure that my emotional response to spoken text does not stick and create difficulties in understanding subsequent utterances
  • I listen for similarities and differences to what has been said previously
  • I look for similarities and differences in the meanings represented verbally and nonverbally
Kenneth Tobin 2015