I feel like I’m losing my mind from the mega-buzz surrounding mindfulness lately. Many companies, including Google and Target, are investing in mindfulness training for their employees. The National Institute of Health is pouring millions to research the effect of mindfulness on depression, obesity, and even the common cold.

Even the journal American Psychologist devoted its most recent special issue to the emergence of mindfulness in psychological science.

The few of us uninitiated souls may wonder what this is all about, and even wonder what mindfulness is. Well here it is: Mindfulness is any practice used to focus on an object, such as one’s breath or a point in space, and then become aware when one’s mind has wandered, and then bring awareness back to the object. In other words: meditation.

When I discovered that this is what the hubbub was all about, I had a bad flashback. I’ve tried meditation several times over the years, primarily when suffering from insomnia. With each attempt, my thoughts quickly wandered like tumbleweed on a windy prairie. After these frustrating efforts I opted for less virtuous sleep aids and went on with my life.

But epiphany comes to those who pay attention! I recently realized that over the past year I have been practicing mindfulness, but not in the traditional meditative manner. Rather, I have engaged in mindful listening. If you are like me and like many of my clients who struggle with listening and want to do better, you will want to hear the rest of this story:

Listening is hard

Probably because I’m curious about what makes people tick, I’ve always been considered a pretty good listener. But I fall into the same traps as everyone else. While someone is speaking I am figuring out what to say next. Or I instantaneously judge what someone is saying before I try to really grasp their point. My inner voice distracts me despite my best intentions to stay focused on the listener. And its hard to not interrupt people when I get excited about something. I really wanted to improve my listening skills.

So I gave myself a challenge: I would try to increase the number of seconds I could completely focus on someone and listen to them deeply, and see if I could lengthen that interval. In essence, I decided to practice listening longer without distracting myself.

Fortunately, I have a great practice field. My job as an executive coach requires me to listen deeply to my clients so I can support their development as leaders. My job facilitating teams who strive to be more effective requires me to listen closely to multiple, often-conflicting perspectives, and help people make sense of it all.

Improvement is possible

I learned a lot in the months I’ve been applying mindful listening. Maintaining steady eye contact really helps. It also helps to stay away from electronic gadgets. My biggest learning is that no matter what, my mind did wander, and I could bring my attention back more quickly, but only through repetitive, intentional practice. I now know that my inter-personal mindfulness practice, which I am still working at, is mindful in the fullest sense of the word.

My listening skills have definitely improved over time, and I know I interrupt people less, though my wife Terri might disagree. She complains that I often don’t hear a word she says. But that is an entirely different subject.

So if you are ‘listening challenged,’ like a gazillion other people, and sincerely want to improve in this arena, here are a few suggestions:

  • Set your goal: It’s paramount to be motivated and set specific, tactical objectives (i.e., “I will listen closely to my colleague for ten seconds longer than I was capable of before,” etc.). It also is important to identify the payoffs you hope to gain by being a better listener.
  • Pay attention while you practice: During your listening practice, concentrate on what you are doing at that moment. When your attention drifts, and it will, bring your focus back to the speaker. Track how many seconds you can keep your attention focused. And practice retrieving earlier comments from the speaker and bring those back into the conversation. People feel heard when you remember what they said.
  • Be good to yourself: Don’t judge or criticize your efforts – this will only discourage you from sustaining your practice. Rather, accept that most of us suffer from ‘poor listening-itis’ and be happy that at least you are trying to do something about it.