Brandi Lust at The Learning Lab attended a workshop we hosted with Chris McAlister and wrote up a reflection on her experience. Brandi  facilitates workshops and retreats for organizations to help bring mindfulness to their work. The below is her summary of the afternoon and some of the conclusions she drew. 

Now we turn it over to Brandi! 

Coming in as individual without partners or employees, my primary focus for attending Chris’s workshop at The Wonder Jam was to consider my current and past relationships with collaborators. I was also interested in exploring what it might look like for me to expand my business when and if that time comes.

Much of the workshop was dedicated to growing employees, which consisted of a regular meeting cycle using Chris’s four-point method of coaching: courage to move, decision-making, nurturing momentum and personal growth.

To explain Chris’ four-point method in my own language:

  • Courage to move is establishing a base point of knowledge about employees current state, gauging their engagement with their work, and exploring potential areas for stretch and risk
  • Decision making is about clarifying the employees intentions and exploring how they are making decisions based upon these intentions (for better or worse)
  • Nurturing momentum is about measuring employee sense of emotional safety, uncovering misgivings, and accepting any critical feedback they might have
  • Personal growth is about exploring how the employee is or isn’t embracing a mindset of growth, flexibility, and change in his or her thoughts and actions.

Each of these conversations requires vulnerability and people are more likely to be vulnerable when they feel like they are being heard and valued. This is where mindful listening comes in, which is something I often teach in my own workshops with The Learning Lab.

What is mindful listening?

Mindful listening is being fully present with another person without being self-referential or having a personal agenda for the conversation.

It takes place in two parts:

  • Listening inwardly
  • Listening outwardly

Listening inwardly is about dispassionate awareness of the thoughts, ideas, and feelings present during within one’s self during a conversation.

One example I often use to illustrate the importance of this is as follows:

Have you said anything unkind to yourself about yourself today? Most of us have. If you were to take the voice in your head and turn it into a person sitting next to you, that person would be often mean, usually unreasonable and many times untrustworthy. Most of us would never be friends with that person- let alone give them total control of our decision making. And yet, the voice in our heads gets to rule our lives, our feelings and our perceptions about the world.

Can you separate yourself from the voice so that you can really listen, really hear, what others are saying to you? The voice is never going to completely stop talking, but if you invest all your energy in what it is saying, it will always be hard for you to hear and see clearly all that is outside of you.

This happens in stages:

  1. Become aware of what’s happening inside. Thoughts are only one part of this but a very important (and very noisy) part. What’s happening inside you right now? Close your eyes and note all of the different thoughts, feelings, and sensations that ripple through your every moment.
  2. Get a little distance from the racket: Can you believe that the voice inside of you is sometimes unreasonable? Can you decide to not believe an unhealthy story that voice is telling you? When a negative story begins to develop, don’t try to push it out of your mind, but see if you can stop investing in it.
  3. Make some decisions about where it is best to put your focus. What’s most important in this moment? Is there something inside that needs your attention that you’ve been ignoring? Maybe you are missing a key component in your environment; can you begin to bring more attention outward?
  4. Focus full energy on the other. There will always be distractions and urges to get away from the moment, but can you bring your attention back over and over to the person with whom you are sharing a moment? What does this feel like? How is that person responding?

Listening outwardly is a really just an extension of inner listening. Even with some emotional distance from the voice in your head, there are still going to be impulses to direct during a discussion. For example, the impulse to think about what we want to share next instead of really hearing the other person.

“Oh my gosh! I know exactly what you’re talking about. This one time I…”

This may seem like connection, but it’s really just a way to insert the self back into focus and avoid the truth of the other. In the words of James Hannaham in the powerful novel and social critique Delicious Foods, “… most often people who have power turn their story into a brick wall keeping out somebody else’s truth…” As managers, business owners and visionaries, we will have the power in most situations. For this reason, it is even more important to be cognizant of the other and the truth they are trying to share.

What does mindful listening look like?

There are many myths about good listening and good conversation, and I am going to dispel two that are very prevalent and give better alternatives.

1. Asking questions is a good listening skill. While questions need to be asked at times, and especially to get a conversation started, once a person starts sharing their story, questions become an impediment. A question is merely a way for the listener to either guide the conversation in a direction of his or her own interest (which can distract the speaker from their focus) or an attempt on the part of the listener to solve a problem (which disempowers the speaker).

Instead, the listener can use the technique of mirroring. This is a process of repeating back what the listener is hearing.

“So what I think I hear you saying is…”

“You are feeling _______…. “

This situation is ________…”

2. Affirming and emphatic body language demonstrates you are listening. Sometimes active listening is described as physical engagement in a conversation; this can materialize in much head nodding and affirmative noises. However, these same “active listening” techniques can make the listener seem impatient as if they are waiting to assert their next response.

Instead, keeping an open body posture, pointed toward the person and limiting physical responses will allow that person to feel as though it is okay to keep speaking and that you want to hear what they have to say. Being comfortable with silence helps, too. With silence, people will often keep going.

What are the results of mindful listening for ourselves and others?

Leaders without the ability to hear others are working from a small sliver of personal truth as opposed to a robust version of what the truth might be.

Karen Schultz, who wrote a book on rethinking silence in classroom settings states, “When I listen…, I am changed by what I hear.” Listening transforms and grows us as leaders and as humans. When we truly listen to the other, we expand our understanding of the world and increase our empathy.

As a result, those around us will want to share more and will feel more valued by us. Few people are really listened to often, so when they are, it is a gift. This will improve the working environment and allow for leaders to hear the important voices of those who influence every initiative, product, and customer created and served by our businesses.


[It’s Adam again!]

Thanks Brandi for sharing! It’s always fun to hear what folks take with them when they attend our workshops!

You can see a list of our classes here.