Active Listening

Four years ago this past fall, I had the opportunity to partake in a Yin-Yoga Teacher Training course led by Biff Mithoefer at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. This course focused as much on the philosophy of teaching, however, as it did on class construction.

One of the skills we practiced at this retreat was the ability to engage in active listening. Many, but not all, individuals view listening as an inconvenient "waiting period" that they must endure to garner the opportunity to share their perspectives on a topic or area of interest.

While none of us went into the retreat with that particular agenda, the active listening practice that we were to engage with was still incredibly challenging. Each of us split up into pairs, with one person designated as the "listener" and the other as the "talker". After a predetermined amount of time (2-3 minutes), we switched roles with our partners, allowing the "listener" to become the "talker" and vice-versa.

The "listeners" had one job — to actively listen to their partners. This proved much more difficult than it might sound, however, since the "listeners" were to refrain not only from talking, but from giving any cues whatsoever. No "ah's" in agreement, or "hmm's" in confusion, no frowns, no nods, twitches, or head tilts.

In other words, no encouraging or discouraging of any kind.

When framed in this manner, active listening was more difficult than anyone might have imagined — for the speaker as well as the listener. Without the verbal hints and non-verbal cues, the "talkers" had no choice but to search within and struggle to find words that matched their own thoughts and feelings.

There were many pauses, some short, others long, as people struggled to find the words to accurately express themselves. Even apologies for pauses were met with silence and blinking eyeballs.

We engaged in this process several times throughout the week, and everyone became progressively more skilled at talking as well as listening. Effective communication can be challenging, however, it is a skill that can both be learned and mastered — if one is willing to take the time.