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From my unscientific observations over the last several decades, it is my conclusion that most people lack a very basic skill: the ability to listen. Actual scientific evidence of this can be found in studies that indicate people only remember about 25% of what someone has said to them, even when asked just a few moments after a conversation.

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When I have encountered someone who really listens — as opposed to just politely waiting for their turn to talk — that person is someone I remember. They are a rare breed.

I believe that mindful listening is a skill we should all seek to develop, and it’s something we should teach our children to do. (Please note, teaching our children this skill goes far beyond saying, “Shhh, Johnny, Mommy’s talking.”)

Mindful listening involves being present in the moment, giving your full attention. But it’s more than that. It requires listening with kindness and without judgement.

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The concept of mindfulness has become more popular in recent years. All of us are so distracted — a problem that only seems to be getting worse — that it requires a conscious effort to remain in the present moment. Experts suggest you begin practicing mindfulness with activities that are actually mindless, things like making coffee, brushing your teeth, or — in my case — feeding the cats. Really pay attention to what you’re doing and be in the moment.

By improving your ability to be in the present moment, you will improve your ability to listen. To further strengthen your listening skills, get in the habit of asking questions as someone is speaking to you. Granted, if someone is giving you a detailed description of their shopping experience when looking for a new washer and dryer, there are few insightful questions one can really ask. “So, tell me, Sue, did you fully consider the ramifications of front-load versus top-load? How did that make you feel?” Those aren’t the conversations I’m talking about (though they provide an opportunity to practice your skills). I’m talking about deeper conversations — though they don’t have to reach “meaning of life” depth — in which someone is expressing their thoughts, feelings, and views on a matter of importance to them.

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The next time you’re in a conversation with someone, focus on what they’re saying. Ask thoughtful and helpful questions that actually advance the discussion, rather than waiting politely until it’s your turn to talk or jumping in to take over the conversation. Too many conversations go something like this:

Friend 1: “So, Bob and I had a big fight about who should take out the trash. This is really starting to become …”

Friend 2: “I know, right? Sometimes I let the trash pile up till you can barely get out the door, and still, Carl refuses to take it out without my telling him to. Oh, and you know what I found in the trash the other day? A perfectly good fork! I’ve been wondering where all our silverware is disappearing to. I thought it was probably under Billy’s bed, but now I’m starting to wonder if it’s just getting thrown away. That’s probably what’s happening with all my Tupperware, too. You know, I used to have a cabinet full of containers. Now all I have is lids . . .” blah, blah, blah.

If you find yourself behaving like Friend 2, make an effort to change your behavior. When your friend is talking to you, be present. Don’t sit there thinking about what you’re going to say. And don’t interrupt. When you interrupt someone, what you’re essentially saying is “What I have to say is more important than what you have to say, so you need to shut up and listen to me.” Kinda makes you view it differently, huh?

Start today. Use the next conversation you have to begin practicing mindful listening. It may take a while before it becomes a fully formed habit, but you’ll find that your relationships become more meaningful and it will actually reduce stress and increase your enjoyment of life. Try it!

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