Practicing the art of listening when we are not engaged in conversation is like practicing a musical instrument before a performance – it makes us better. We can think of it as training our ears and our attention. There are many opportunities in everyday life to do this and I will highlight three of my favorites: birds in nature, voices in an airport, and the sounds of home.
Birds in Nature
Whenever we are lucky enough to be in nature, we have the opportunity to tune into a multitude of sounds, including birds. We can listen to the general sounds of all bird noises in contrast to other sounds we might be hearing in nature, such as wind in the trees. Once we are hearing the birds above other noises, we can listen specifically to the different types of bird sounds we are hearing. We can also switch between the different bird sounds, focusing on one type at a time and then moving on to another type for a bit. For bird enthusiasts out there, try to avoid slipping into the cognitive exercise of identifying the bird types. The point is improving our listening ear, not our memory.
Voices in an Airport
Training our ears to hear different types of voices can easily be done in an airport or any mode of public transportation. We start by noticing the voices around us, preferably with eyes in a downward gaze so we are not looking at people. We can notice different qualities of voice, such as pitch (high vs. low) and cadence (fast vs. slow). If our attention starts to go to the meaning of the words, we can draw it back to just the voice qualities. We can also switch between different voices to practice homing in on one sound and then switching to a different voice to practice controlling our attention.
Sounds of Home
Wherever we live, there are noises about us that we mostly do not hear because our attention is elsewhere. Pausing what we are doing and turning our listening to the sounds of home can be a surprisingly entertaining practice because we hear things we don’t usually hear in our everyday environment. It can be loud or quiet and we can still practice noticing the various sounds. For this practice, I recommend giving a simple label to the sounds we hear as they randomly arise – fan, car passing, refrigerator, dog barking, roommate on phone, water running, etc. We can also notice the quality of the sound, but we want to avoid cognitively engaging by thinking about what is behind the sound, such as, “I wonder who my roommate is talking to now.” The listening practice is about focusing on the sound, not the meaning.
Not only are these listening practices a way to pause and enjoy the day, by honing listening skills outside of conversation, we may find that we are better able to control our attention and stay engaged during conversations.