On the Timing of Speaking and Listening


Have you ever slowed down your part of a conversation enough to ask yourself: What is making me speak or listen? If you aren't making conscious choices during your conversations and you're on autopilot, simply in what appears to be a state of flow, I invite you to do an experiment.


Conversation As Deep Work

I frequently talk about deep work and our inability to multi-task. The notion of deep work is built into mindfulness, as when you begin to practice you become acutely aware of switching costs (the time and productivity costs associated with switching back and forth between tasks, which is really what you are doing when you're multitasking) and the reality that everything suffers when you try to do more than one thing. Deep work is doing one thing, with intention and attention. No email or notifications or music (some people use white or brown noise), a set period of time, and a set task to work on or complete.


In mindfulness class, we practice listening in a structured way sometimes—with guidelines about how to listen as well as what happens when you talk. Guidelines and a timed structure remove some decision-making, which helps participants focus on the guidelines. For example: It's my turn to listen, which means I'm not speaking, I'm not moving much, I'm watching and feeling for tone, body language, facial expressions, etc....





Be in Neutral in Conversation

There are different gears for listening as well as for speaking. In the above photo, neutral is the horizontal line that isn't labelled. I like this depiction because neutral really isn't a gear at all. Neutral is when no gear is engaged at the moment, but once there's more information, your choice of gear becomes evident. You sense it. You probably see where this is going. Here's the experiment:

  • Decide to bathe your conversations in awareness. Maybe for a day, maybe for an hour, maybe for one call or Zoom meeting.

  • Whatever you decide, your intention is to slow how you ordinarily do things. Only you know exactly what that means for you. Whatever it means, it's impossible without that initial awareness. Have an intention to slow your way of being, including your listening and speaking.

  • Here's the feeling you're going for: spaciousness. Other words and phrases that come to mind for me are: lingering, resting in awareness, stillness, sitting in non-judgment, and pausing. You're settled, poised, and allowing whatever arises without acting on it. You're paying attention to the sensations that are emerging as you listen-to-understand rather than listen-to-respond. You're connecting with yourself while you connect with others.

  • When you feel an urge coming on to say or do something, notice that let it pass. See what happens when you don't say or do what pops up for you.

  • See if you can count to five before saying a word.



  • If someone shares something important or emotional with you, try saying only "thank you" when they're done. And give them plenty of time to speak, by the way. Count at least to five—slowly—before your thank you.

  • Notice what's happening in your body when you speak and after.


Many of us blithely go through our days, not attending to the timing of our speaking, not to mention our word choice. It's as if what has appeared in our mind necessarily needs to come out of our mouths. But that might not be the case. Not all thoughts are meant to be uttered out loud.


How much of what you say adds value to the lives of others? How much of it is filling time and space? How much of it isn't kind? How much of it is petty or mean-spirited or gossip? How about taking a day to err on the side of silence.


Speaking of which, if you'd like to sit for the daylong retreat on February 19 or the half-day on February 26, let me know.


Have a peaceful day.

mm