The Mindful Lawyer: Sleigh Bells Ring, Are You Listening?
Last month’s column, Perry Mason and the Present Moment, explored mindful listening, a topic we’ll again consider, this time with a nod to a popular holiday song, “Winter Wonderland.” The song opens with a reminder that can meaningfully influence the quality of our connection with others, our productivity, and our collective well-being. “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?”
When we truly listen others feel heard, our focus sharpens, and we cultivate greater empathy. Because listening is a natural capacity accessible every moment of our lives, we’ll explore some tips on listening that you may find helpful this holiday season.
Listening to the World Around Us
Mindfulness is often described as non-judgmental awareness. It is a quality borne of wisdom and compassion. And it can be elusive. The challenge is that we can be so quick to evaluate, judge, and criticize that we miss out on the nuance, complexity, and beauty of that which is before us — be it an idea, a creative expression, or another human being.
When present for our experience, we naturally and effortlessly take in the world around us with a mind that is open and non-judgmentally aware. We all know such moments and can be pleasantly surprised by the ease and open heartedness we experience at such time. As such moments tend to be transient and unpredictable, we can practice mindful listening to our environment — the wind, the rustle of leaves, birds, airplanes overhead, someone’s beliefs, the ocean surf, footsteps, and the like — with the aspiration of being open and receptive to what arises and passes away. It can be exhausting to continually assess everything that crosses our path — regardless of whether we are asked for our opinion or have any control over the matter. Listening, as an end in itself, is savoring the moment. It’s taking a load off and is replenishing.
Every now and again, pause and listen as if with ears that are hearing for the first time, open to the mystery of the moment unfolding before you. The Native American proverb from last month’s column offers us:
Listen to the wind, it talks. Listen to the silence, it speaks. Listen to your heart, it knows.
Take a few slower, deeper breaths to settle the body and mind. Close your eyes if you’d like. There is nothing to do. Be with your experience, as it is; open, receptive, curious. What is the next note to be played in the symphony of your life?
Listening to Another Person
It is common for us to interrupt each other. It happens frequently and often goes unnoticed. When we interrupt, we can miss out on important information and send the message that we don’t care, are not paying attention, or believe that what we have to say is more important. Steven Covey suggests that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” When we are listening with an open heart and mind conversations, even when we disagree, can be connecting and satisfying. So, what might we do about this?
“Do Not Interrupt” (DNI) is a listening technique which invites you to hold the intention to not interrupt a person while talking with them. If you give this a try, you’re likely to find that you interrupt anyway. But at least you’re a little bit more aware. And in time you will interrupt less. You will become more aware of the reasons why you interrupt — things like feeling agitated, worried, in some way unhappy about what you’re hearing, or so excited that you can’t help yourself. In January 2018, this column explored this technique, which attorney Paul Singerman has been practicing and sharing with lawyers, law students, and judges for many years.
With this insight and experience you develop greater resilience in the face of these impulses and become more deliberate and intentional in your speech and manner. If you’re wondering if it is okay to interject when someone is talking, the answer is, of course, yes. Krista Tippet reminds us that “listening is about being present, not just about being quiet.” You can treat a conversation like a jazz performance. Each performer listens deeply, knowing spontaneously know when to join in, when to pause, and when to solo. Musicians join in when doing so is responsive to the moment — to the shared experience. This ability arises more naturally when we practice listening. Every voice matters and the experience is enriched when all are heard.
Listening to Ourselves
The holidays tend to be a season where thoughts and feelings run both joyful and somber. There is a poignancy in the air that touches us deeply. Interactions with family, friends, and colleagues can be a delight and painful. It is easy to get carried away by our inner experience and impulsively doing something to feel better — “fixing” a problem that may not need fixing, numbing ourselves to avoid an unpleasantness or out of habit, and distancing ourselves from others.
Given the mind’s tendency to wander, to engage in mental chatter, and to treat thoughts as facts, it can be valuable to step back and observe the activity of our own mind. Doing so can help us notice and appreciate the sleigh bells ringing in our midst and wake up to appreciate life’s wonderland: glistening snow, beautiful sights, and nights when we are happy and at peace.
The mindfulness teacher, Joseph Goldstein, tells the story of Mother Teresa responding to the question of what she says when she prays to God.
“I don’t say anything. I listen,” she replied.
And what does God say to you? She was then asked.
“God listens, too.”
However you may regard this story, it points to the power of simply listening. Listening without an agenda. Listening as self-inquiry. Just listening.
It can be helpful during this time of year to pause and listen to ourselves. You can listen for no particular reason, or to glimpse the part of you that is struggling, bored, or experiencing delight. Many mindfulness practices are listening practices. Unacknowledged, when the mind wanders thoughts become mere distractions. In contrast, listening to our thoughts as a non-judgmental witness, is something else entirely — a game changer. Each time we glimpse mind wandering, we are listening to ourselves. It’s the gift of solitude and reflection that opens the doorway to becoming a little more present for the unfolding of this precious life, and of connecting more deeply to each other and those we love.
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, mindfulness and negotiation, 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. He is author of the recently released, “The Mindful Law Student: A Mindfulness in Law Practice Guide,” written for all audiences.