Preventing Mind-Wandering Can Help You Become a Better Listener

5 min read

Education & Career Trends: February 9

Curated by the Knowledge Team of  ICS Career GPS

As with meditation, when your attention wanders, just bring it back to the issue at hand.

  • Excerpts are taken from an article published on

Does your mind ever wander when you’re supposed to be listening? For example, maybe these situations sound familiar:

Your colleague asks, “What do you think about that?” You realise you have no idea what “that” is because you were thinking about a situation at home. Your friend refers to something mentioned earlier in the conversation, and you have no idea what he’s talking about.

Situations like this happen to all of us, but they can be embarrassing, painful, and, at worst, dangerous to the relationship. No one can be perfect, but you can reduce the times when you don’t listen as well as you want to. This blog reviews the surprising importance of good listening; how to set up a good listening situation; and how to recover and repair situations when you’ve stopped listening.

The Listening Advantage

As you know, listening is important, but you may not fully realise the wealth of benefits it provides to both listener and speaker. 

Contrariwise, when one person isn’t listening, you have a set-up for resentment, mistrust, and relationship dissatisfaction at work or home.

  1. Use non-verbal communication. Maintain eye contact. Turn toward the person. Just looking at the person while they speak goes a long way toward helping them feel heard while helping you keep your focus on their words.
  2. Use brief encouragement. Examples: “Yes.” “Wow.” “Makes sense to me.”
  3. Ask appropriate questions. Questions show interest. This study from Harvard Business School, called “It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask,” showed that people who asked questions were better liked by their peers. (Just don’t make it an inquisition.)
  4. Paraphrase briefly. What you think the person is saying so they know you are listening and trying to understand. If you are wrong, don’t worry, because the speaker will clarify for you. A good, simple formula: “It sounds like you’re feeling ____ and you want ____.”
  5. Empathise. “That would be so difficult. No wonder you are feeling ____.”

These skills will help you reframe listening as an active, not a passive, process as well as keep you engaged in the conversation.

Prevent Mind-Wandering

You can set up your environment to make it easier to listen. Aim for surroundings that are quiet and, if need be, private. Minimise distractions such as TV and phones. This may be obvious.

But it’s also important to prepare your mind to listen. Here are some typical mental barriers to high-quality listening and ways to remove them:

1. Barrier: You haven’t yet made it a priority to listen.

Possible solution: Remind yourself why listening is important—you want to succeed at work, for your partner to feel loved, and to be a good person. Make the decision to change. Rather than just having a vague idea that you could “listen better,” consider this mini-goal: Dedicate the first two minutes of any conversation to attentive listening. That mini-goal could jump-start your change.

2. Barrier: You are physically uncomfortable.

For example, the light is in your eyes, you are cold, you need to change clothes, you need some alone time, or you need to use the restroom.

Possible solution: Be assertive. Inform the speaker and say something like: “Excuse me, I’m so uncomfortable right now that I can’t listen. I need a few moments to (insert what you need to do, if appropriate), and then I’ll be able to listen better.”

3. Barrier: You think you’ve heard his or her story a hundred times before.

This problem, labelled “the closeness-communication bias,” often arises in long-term relations.

Possible solution: Challenge yourself to ask a question that may uncover further details about your peer.

4. Barrier: You have something on your mind that you need to do before you can concentrate.

Possible solution: Tell the other person: “It’s going to be hard for me to concentrate until I…. Do you mind if I get that done first?” Alternatively, decide that listening to the other person is more important than that thing.

5. Barrier: During talks or lectures, your attention meanders. You miss out on important material you need for school/work/life.

Possible solution: Pay close attention to at least the first five minutes of a talk. This study-skills trick will orient you to the speaker’s point of view, agenda, and goals. The next most important time may be the last five minutes when the speaker summarises and/or gives an assignment.

No one can be expected to listen perfectly at every moment, so be gentle with yourself if you make a mistake. As with meditation, when your attention wanders, just bring it back to the issue at hand. However, if you notice that failing to listen is a continuing problem, consider taking a class or asking a counsellor about it.

Have you checked out yesterday’s blog yet?

5 Ways to Cultivate Authentic Leadership

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article mentioned above are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

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