“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention… A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.” – Rachel Naomi Remen
How are you?
It’s a common situation — you pass someone you know in the hallway at work, or maybe it’s the clerk in the checkout line, and he says “How are you?” But you know it’s not a question he’s actually waiting for you to answer beyond, perhaps, with a “good,” “okay” or “busy.”
Instead of just asking out of habit, what would happen if the person truly meant the question? According to UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, it’s a situation that has the power to change a life.
“The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen, but we’ve forgotten this art,” she comments. For her, mindful listening is a skill that we can (and should) cultivate.
There are a number of distractions that affect our ability to listen — our minds wander during conversations; we’re inwardly focused on how we’re going to reply; we’re so comfortable with the person (say a spouse) we assume we know what she or he is going to say; and of course, technology in the form of mobile devices.
In fact, Mirgain points to one study that found an “iPhone effect.” Just the presence of a mobile device — such as it sitting on the dinner table or being held in one’s hand — is actually linked to a lower quality of social interaction, a reduction in a feeling of connectedness and a decrease in empathetic concern.
But putting our devices away, providing the space for others to talk and express their feeling or thoughts is what helps them feel cared for. And, through practice we can cultivate our skill to do so.
Focus fully on the conversation
During a conversation, Mirgain suggests focusing fully on the person in front of you. Make eye contact and provide space by not interrupting — or responding to a text message — and act engaged by confirming what you hear with a simple word like “okay” or by nodding your head. Ask for clarification if needed, and try to pick up on what’s going on underneath the surface.
She also suggests refraining from trying to resolve any issues by offering unsolicited advice or through comments like “don’t worry it will be fine,” or “I know how you feel.”
“While we think we’re being helpful, we actually run the risk of leaving someone feeling like their situation doesn’t matter,” she explains. “We don’t always have to say something. Merely being present and engaged can make a meaningful difference.”
Why our body language matters
And while much of the focus is on what we’re saying (or not), it’s also important to pay attention to what our bodies are saying. Mirgain notes that there is a popular belief that a significant amount of communication (numbers vary between 55 percent and 90 percent) is non-verbal — facial expressions, posture, eye contact — and those unspoken actions can “speak” volumes about what a person is really feeling. But even if the research is debatable, there is truth to the fact that a person’s actions can convey their own messages.
“If you say you’re listening to someone, but then appear distracted or not engaged, it can leave someone feeling like you don’t care,” says Mirgain. “But we can have a truly positive impact on others just by bringing more of ourselves into our interactions and being more compassionate.”
The benefits of compassion
She explains that research has found a strong correlation between the health, well-being and happiness of people who are emotionally and behaviorally compassionate – so long as they are not overwhelmed by trying to do too much for others. One study in particular found that those who were supportive to friends, relatives, neighbors and spouses lived longer. In a nutshell – truly connecting with others benefits our own health and it can make a significant difference in the lives of others as well.
Mirgain shares the example of riding on a bus. Imagine seeing someone who looks upset. You may not know why, but what might happen if you reached out to the person and said simply, “I hope you are okay.” It happened to someone Mirgain knew, and it changed her life.
“The simple act of a stranger reaching out and showing compassion gave this person hope at a time she was struggling to find it. And it is a moment that has stayed with her throughout her life,” she says.