Our ability to communicate well with others actually starts inside our own heads, with our ability to listen to ourselves. Thich Nhat Hanh, author of over 100 books including The Art of Communicating, points out that we can’t really engage adequately with others until we first communicate with ourselves well.
In this book I found many precious tidbits that I had not thought of in quite the way he phrased it. A big take-away is how important our self-communication is to our wellbeing and to our communication with others.
It all starts with the breath. Awareness that we are breathing brings us to the moment and gives us access to ourselves in the present. “The quiet of nonthinking and nontalking gives us the space to truly listen to ourselves.” How often do we listen to ourselves the way we would like others to listen to us?
We start by giving ourselves the gift of deep listening. Deep listening is listening with the intention to help without passing judgment. When thoughts and emotions arise, we hear them and give them space, but do not judge or take action. “These feelings are like a small child tugging at our sleeves. Pick them up and hold them tenderly,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh. In this listening with the purpose of helping, we are listening with curiosity to understand better.
Listening to our own thoughts, we may be surprised what they are saying. Often they are not rational or even in line with our current true beliefs, but rather just automatic regurgitation of past things we were taught or have experienced. Whether we are aware of them or not, they are still influencing us. It is better to be aware so that we can make the active choice whether to the follow their lead. This is the benefit of listening to ourselves well – it moves us out of autopilot and gives us more choices in how we communicate and act with others.
For example, I sometimes hear a thought in my head of bias against people with heavy accents. The irrational thought is that they are less intelligent. I don’t believe that nor is it in alignment with my values. When I hear that ‘less intelligent’ thought arise, I choose not to follow where it would lead, which would hamper my listening. Instead, I hear the biased thought as I listen to myself well, and then I choose deliberately to practice active listening with that person. I am curious to learn what they know. If I were NOT listening well to myself in that moment, my implicit bias might automatically influence my interaction with that person without me even having a choice!
Listening to ourselves eventually leads to self-mastery. With self-mastery we can know the tendencies of our own minds. With extensive practice, we have the awareness and the discipline to stand above our arising thoughts in the moment and determine their wisdom prior to words coming out of our mouths. It all starts with a breath and a moment of turning inward and listening to ourselves. Try it right now.
Jennifer Kammeyer combines 25 years experience with academic research to advise leaders on how to intentionally use communication to elevate professional relationships and improve business outcomes. She offers coaching one-on-one, in teams, and through workshops. As adjunct faculty at San Francisco State University, she is up to date on new communication research and trends, allowing her to advise professionals on a wide range of communication topics. Popular training topics include building executive presence, leadership communication, public speaking, high-value meetings, and mindful communication. She has been personally practicing mindfulness since 1999 and incorporates concepts and techniques in all of her teaching.