Book Review – The Zen of Listening

The Zen of Listening
Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction
By Rebecca Z Shafir

Frankly, I’m a little tired of all the “Zen of” books. I’m worried that on my next visit to the bookstore I might see “The Zen of Picking Out a Shirt,” or “The Zen of Feeding the Cat.” Yes, of course, Zen can be applied to anything and everything. But just how many so-called “Zen of” books do we really need?

Well, one more at least. “The Zen of Listening” makes a legitimate claim to the Zen ideal. After all, what is Zen if not mindful watching and listening? And with “The Zen of Listening,” Rebecca Shafir gives us an immensely valuable book which strikes at the heart of a condition many feel is the bane of modern life: distraction.

Shafir is a certified speech and language pathologist and a ten-year student of Zen; she understands the importance of listening. She sees a lack of listening skills at the heart of many modern trials and problems, from high suicide rates, school violence, family break-ups, to below-average school performance, and the loss of millions of dollars in revenue through inefficient team work, impersonal customer service, etc.

These kinds of issues, says Shafir, could be radically diminished through a more careful and mindful approach to the way we listen:

“Our goal in becoming mindful listeners is to quiet the internal noise to allow the whole message and the messenger to be understood. In addition, when we listen mindfully to others, we help quiet down their internal noise. When they notice that we are totally with them, people feel freer to cut out the layers of pretense to say what’s really on their minds.”

Listening is not, by the way, simply hearing. It’s not an activity, but more of a state of being. When we are truly listening, we are open, present, aware. We’re in the moment, not just being patient, waiting for someone to finish talking so we can jump in and make our point. Listening involves more than your ears. But the first step to becoming better listeners is to become aware of those kinds of subtle obstacles to listening we’ve let creep into our hyper-fast methods of modern communication. The degree to which we find ourselves willing and able to listen is often affected, not only by what the person is saying, but by how we perceive that person. Their appearance, their tone of their voice, their clothing, all may play a role in how well we really listen. For example, research has shown that we tend to listen more carefully to people we find attractive than people we don’t.

Through specific examples, Shafir highlights these and other areas where our listening habits may need some sharpening. She combines her depth of academic learning with an insightful application of Zen to help us build and strengthen trusting relationships, improve confidence, and become more efficient and effective in whatever we do.

Listening isn’t just something we give others. It’s also something we do for ourselves. When we speak “mindlessly” we do ourselves a disservice by
miscommunicating our true thoughts and feelings, and creating confusion for others in our lives:

“Mindless speaking is so annoying that perhaps it is one of the reasons we dwell more and more in removed forms of communication like e-mail, Internet chat rooms, and faxes. We make the connections we crave but avoid the hassles associated with face-to-face contact.”

Shafir does a fine job of addressing not only external distractions that can impair our ability to listen, but also those internal distractions:

“How many times a day do you find yourself thinking, ‘I don’t believe I said that!’, ‘How stupid!’, ‘What an idiot!’, ‘I look terrible today,’ or ‘I know I will not be able to remember all that he’s telling me.’ Sound familiar? By proclaiming our deficiencies in negative self-talk, even silently to ourselves, we chip away at our self-confidence. Negative self-talk attacks our feelings of self-worth. By increasing our anxiety, these internal distractions prevent us from focusing our attention on the message and the messenger.”

Shafir provides helpful self tests, brief case studies, and anecdotes to illustrate the various ways in which we can become better, mindful listeners.

One of the more interesting sections to me is on “listening under stress.” After all, it’s relatively easy to be a good listener when you’re in a calm environment. What about when we’re in a hectic or stressful environment? How well do we listen when the heat is on, and we’re anxious or uncomfortable? Listening during an argument, or when we feel pressured as with a job interview or when meeting new people can be very challenging.

“During heated arguments and confrontations, the listening demands are much greater. The challenge is to process not only the words and emotions behind the words, but to avoid becoming defensive and/or eventually offensive. To do this you need to unconditionally accept the reality of the other person as legitimate. You need to remain calm and focused in order to choose your words carefully. You can see how listening under stress is the ultimate test of your foundation for mindful listening.”

Shafir is a clear and focused writer. She handles her topic with professionalism and sensitivity in a very no-nonsense manner. If you are married, have children, friends, are in business, school (which should cover just about everyone), this book will prove immensely helpful.

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