Our Resonant Minds: How to Listen Well, Think Better
Posted on June 16, 2012
Clear thinking requires deep listening. When we listen deeply to one another, our minds achieve what brain scientists call “neural resonance,” an enhanced state of mental attunement in which physical properties of our brains actually mirror one another at the neuronal level. This neuronal mirroring, according to many cognitive scientists, increases our intelligence, problem solving, and sense of well being – even during conflict and difficult conversations when we need these qualities most. The better we listen, the more neurologically enhancing and emotionally relaxing we become.
So, how do we attain this state of neural attunement with its many attendant brain benefits? Before answering, let’s first examine the ways we fail to achieve attunement with others. In other words, what we do when we don’t listen well. Ask yourself how often you engage in these “bad” listening behaviors (if you’re like me you’ll recognize yourself far too many times in these examples):
1. daydreaming: are you thinking about unrelated topics while someone is speaking?
2. debating: are you carrying on an inner argument about what’s being said?
3. judging: are you critiquing and letting negative views guide your listening?
4. problem solving: are you yearning to offer unrequested advice?
5. psuedo-listening: are you merely pretending to be a good listener?
6. rehearsing: are you planning what to say next?
7. stage hogging: are you redirecting the conversation to suit your own goals?
8. ambushing: are you just gathering information to use against the speaker?
9. selective listening: are you only responding to the parts of the conversation that interest you?
10. defensive listening: are you taking everything personally?
11. avoidant listening: are you blocking out what you may not want to hear?
See yourself here? I do, painfully and frequently. Take interruptions, for example, as one common result of bad listening. Research shows that most of us, most of the time interrupt the other person before they’ve finished speaking. Even doctors, who are trained to listen to their patients, interrupt them within 23 seconds on average, well before patients have expressed their medical concerns.
As the doctor might say, easy enough to diagnose our listening follies, but how to cure them? Authors Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman offer useful advice in their latest book, “Words Can Change Your Brain” -
“To listen deeply and fully, you must train your mind to stay focused on the person who is speaking: their words, tone, gestures, facial cues – everything. . . . When the other person pauses – and hopefully they’ll have enough self-awareness not to ramble on and on – you’ll need to respond specifically to what they just said. If you shift the conversation to what you were previously saying, or to a different topic, it will interrupt the neurological ‘coherence’ between the two of you, and the flow of your dialogue will be broken.”
The reality is that we usually have no reason to interrupt, but we do it all the time, a bad habit ingrained from years of bad listening. Truth be told, by not interrupting – and listening instead – we can learn much about the other person’s state of mind – what preoccupies them so much that they can’t stop talking? If they are too caught up in their own heads to listen to us, then there’s really no point interrupting since they won’t be able to listen to what we have to say anyway.
But all is not lost, say Newberg and Waldman. This is where we might, ironically enough, interrupt the speaker to interject an apology, and with a warm, slow voice let them know: “I’m sorry to interrupt since I value what you are saying. But unfortunately my time is short right now, and I want to make sure I’m able to tell you what I need to say.” Most people will meet this imposition with appreciation. In fact, you might suggest that you and your conversation partner each take turns speaking speaking only a sentence or two. As artificial and limiting as this sounds, studies and practice show this to be a surprisingly effective means of handling even the most important discussions.
The implications for attorneys are all too clear. Attorneys are trained to talk, not to listen. To argue, not to concede. To analyze, not to empathize. Let’s admit it, we lawyers talk too much, too long, too quickly in many cases. But we may serve our clients best by acting least like this verbose, argumentative and logic-chopping lawyer the profession still countenances – if not valorizes- in many professional circles.
Newberg and Waldman may have something more to offer to us attorneys. They recommend the following 12 steps to what they call “compassionate communication,” their prescription for achieving neural resonance.
2. Stay present
3. Cultivate inner silence
4. Increase positivity
5. Reflect on your deepest values
6. Access a pleasant memory
7. Observe nonverbal cues
8. Express appreciation
9. Speak warmly
10. Speak slowly
11. Speak briefly
12. Listen deeply
Doesn’t sound like too many lawyers we know, does it. Ourselves included, in all honesty. Still, try these 12 steps (or just one of them to start if you’re skeptical) and see how it affects your practice the next time you’re meeting with a client, judge, or colleague – anyone for that matter. Your experience should be the test of whether this prescription for deep listening works in legal practice and life.
May you attain a resonant mind – a resonant legal mind, that is.