Using this simple tweak, you can become a better listener, even if you live in your head
I’m a pretty extreme introvert. I live deep in my head a large portion of my day. If you’re an introvert you’ll understand this. We analyze, we think things through. We’re not always aware of the expression on our face. Someone might ask if something’s wrong, because we look so serious — when inside, we’re just working through a deep problem.
As a writer, I’m always working through story ideas in my head. It’s especially hard when I’m standing and walking around, because this is our brain’s best way of thinking creatively. If someone stops me to talk during one of these moments, it’s hard for me to snap to attention and listen to what they’re saying, until now.
As introverts we still need human connection. Most of us don’t want to live in caves or basements. Although we require solitude to recharge and do our best work, we also crave deep, meaningful interaction with others. There’s a fine balance and it’s different for everyone.
There’s an introversion spectrum — same as every other human trait.
I’ve been told is I’m a terrible listener. If I’m inside my head while someone is speaking, I’m not really present. I don’t absorb what the other person says, and, if a question is asked of me, many times I don’t have an answer. This behavior is horrible on relationships, plus you come across like a jerk.
Poor listening is embarrassing, rude, and wrong.
Sure, as introverts we’ve got the natural gift to tune people out when they’re not worth listening to, but when a loved one or friend is speaking, we better damn well be present or we’ll ruin the relationship.
So, how do we turn off our inner-chatter at will. It’s not like we’ll miss something in our heads. The thoughts aren’t going anywhere. We can pick up where we left-off. We need a way to focus and listen at-will.
This inner chatter is called subvocalization.
When you’re subvocalizing, you wait for your turn to speak, but you don’t process what the other person says. Their words flow around you like water. If we want to be present there are a few things that will help. I’m working on them myself recently, so I figured I’d share what I learned.
Become a better introverted listener:
(1) Mindfulness — this is a daily meditation practice that helps train your mental muscles not to wander. A wandering mind, left unchecked turns into thought addiction, where we spend most of the day time-traveling instead of focusing on the present.
When we practice mindfulness as a lifelong habit, we train our brains to focus, and when they wander, we learn to snap back to the present faster. Mindfulness is a journey. You don’t practice it once and become an exert. With short, focused meditation sessions you slowly become a better listener when you’re not meditating.
Here’s a meditation technique I developed for creatives. It’s easy to learn and designed for people with wandering minds:
New, Easy Meditation for Creatives: Try ‘The Road’
Mindful Meditation for those with Wandering Minds
(2) Shut-off the subvocalization — this little technique is so valuable, I wish I’d learned it twenty years ago. By nature you live in your head, right? So we can’t really remove the thoughts, but we can distract our wandering minds while someone is speaking. I got this method from a speed-reading trainer, but found the technique has a much broader use.
This little trick will change your listening ability, instantly
There are a handful of methods you can use, but they all work the same. Pick from one of these to start, but you can always make a different one that works for you.
Stop sub-vocalization instantly:
- Tap your finger on your leg or table. Use a steady rhythm.
- Touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth and hold it there until you have to speak.
- Tap your foot.
- Squeeze your hand, between your thumb and index finger (a pressure point) to a steady rhythm.
This small, unobtrusive, physical distraction forces our chattering brain to focus on the little tic. The tapping isn’t enough to distract you from what the person is saying, but it’s enough to pause the inner-voice.
Whatever you do, don’t tell the other person why you’re doing this. It’s not obvious to the outsider. The person speaking won’t notice as long as you give a subtle tap or a small squeeze of the hand. The tongue works well too and no one can see it.
The worst thing you can do is say “hold on, I’ve got to start tapping so I can listen to you.” Make it a habit. As soon as you hear someone speaking, practice your little tic. Try it the next time someone speaks.
Do these two techniques work 100% of the time, nope. Nothing does. You may have a wandering mind for a thousand different reasons. If you’re in distress all the tapping techniques in the world won’t make you a better listener.
But this does work often, and it works better than anything else I’ve tried — and I’ve tried many tricks.
I’ve also experimented with foot tapping while I meditate. This has helped my mind wander less and keep focused on my breath. I’m still experimenting, but it make work for you too.
If you’ve got a wandering mind it’s important to learn to control it. As introverts we’ve got to be present. Our superpower is also our Kryptonite. I hope this little technique helps you as much as it’s helped me.
It’s time to listen.