The Mindful Lawyer
The Mindful Lawyer
What exactly is mindful listening?
Special to the News
People often look to practicing mindfulness to be happier, or less stressed, or to enhance their performance. While mindfulness is fundamentally about being present for whatever is arising and seeing things more clearly — as an end in itself — the benefits commonly sought likely flow out of being more mindfully aware in the first instance (i.e., of being present and seeing things clearly).
A practical example of mindfulness being integrated into daily life that we’ll explore this month is “listening.” Most of us do not need to be persuaded of the importance and challenge of effective communication and the central role that listening plays. So, too, we know only too well the frustration and anger that can arise in the midst of conversations, be they in person, over the phone, or via email and text.
This month’s question is posed by Lawrence, who writes:
“I know it is important to be a good listener and most of the time I think I do a good job of it. But there are times when I am told that I have not been paying attention and also times when, admittedly, it is hard for me to wait for someone to finish talking before I jump in to say my piece. This is especially the case when I get what they are saying or think they are off base and want to clarify and save time. I’ve read about ‘mindful listening’ but am not sure what it means other than to do a better job listening. What exactly is mindful listening?”
Lawrence, thank you for your question, which carries with it two related parts. The first involves your comment that you’ve been told that you “have not been paying attention.” You belong to a club with a lot of members. The mind wanders a great deal — research suggests as often as 50 percent of the time — and it is common for something someone says to trigger a thought, or for something completely unrelated, to hijack our attention. Unfortunately, the person we are talking to tends to realize this before we do, if it is realized at all. During such times we are, at best, paying partial attention, and we often miss out completely on what someone is saying. The consequences to this cannot be overstated.
The basic mindfulness practice, known as “focused attention” can be helpful for paying better attention. Through focusing attention on an object, such as the breath, and when the mind wanders, directing attention back to the object, you become more adept at noticing mind wandering, and as a result, better able to maintain attention. This skill, developed and refined through daily practice, translates well into real-world exchanges with other people. Moreover, because you are more likely to catch your mind as it begins to wander, you not only are able to stay on track better, but you are less likely to ride the roller coaster of emotion frequently caused by unnecessary mind wandering into past and future. In this way, mindfulness practice can be helpful for being a more attentive listener.
Your second comment is helpful as it invites consideration of a more nuanced aspect of mindful listening. Again, you belong to a popular club. It is frequently the case that people interrupt one another in the midst of conversation. Sometimes, this passes as an easy and enjoyable give and take, while at other times it is an unpleasant experience of interrupting, being interrupted, raised voices, the escalation of tension, and of not feeling heard. While the easy and enjoyable give and take may be just that, if one observes closely, the conversation may not be as satisfying as it could be. The practice of mindful listening can be very helpful in both scenarios, though I will focus on the latter, as it is a common occurrence in the practice of law, can be a source of great agitation, and can have consequences to a client’s case as well as to our well-being.
Mindful listening involves noticing the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that arise in the midst of conversation. Whether we are aware of it or not, our interior experience often influences our decisionmaking and conduct. We feel agitated and so we do something to feel less agitated. For example, we are interrupted and so we talk louder. Or we think we know where the person is going — or don’t like where the person is going — and so we interrupt. But talking louder or interrupting tends not to be the most effective response. It’s just the one that is triggered most immediately as a way to quell the agitation we are feeling, be it frustration, anger, restlessness, or even boredom.
Attorney Paul Singerman offers a helpful instruction to guide mindful listening. It’s one that can both deepen your mindfulness practice and listening skills. The instruction is to go a whole day without interrupting anyone. While you likely will find it to be extremely challenging to implement, it is the very moments of challenge that matter most. For when you catch yourself about to interrupt, the opportunity presents itself to turn attention inward and, rather than react, observe the changing landscape of thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. This can feel uncomfortable, but if you are able to rest your attention on these interior experiences (and steady yourself with the breath), you may begin to find nuggets of insight and develop a greater resilience to maintain your attentiveness and engagement. Importantly, Singerman cautions not to “white knuckle” it, meaning that the instruction is not to clench teeth and fight the urge to interrupt until you detect an opening to jump in. Rather, it is an open invitation to practice patience, to step outside the fray of battling egos, to gather more data, and, perhaps at a time when it is needed more than ever, to demonstrate a show of respect for another human being.
Thank you, Lawrence, for submitting an important and timely question that delves into the heart of mindfulness practice. Wishing you and all readers a Happy New Year — or perhaps better put, a Happy New Ear.
If you have a question about mindfulness or ways of integrating mindfulness into the practice of law that you would like answered in this column, send it to.
Scott Rogers, M.S., J.D., is a nationally recognized leader in the area of mindfulness in law and founded and directs the University of Miami School of Law’s Mindfulness in Law Program where he teaches mindful ethics, mindful leadership, and mindfulness in law. He is the creator of Jurisight, one of the first CLE programs in the country to integrate mindfulness and neuroscience and conducts workshops and presentations on the role of mindfulness in legal education and across the legal profession.