Most of us would agree that our world and culture have significant communication problems.

From miscommunications between colleagues to parents feeling disconnected from their children to misunderstandings with loved ones, it seems no one is really listening to each other.

Proponents of deep listening, the practice of mindful and compassionate listening to oneself (body, mind, and spirit) and others (even if they disagree with you) believe it holds the power to end the world’s chronic communication problems.

In this article, we’ll dig deep into the practice of deep listening and how you can start sharpening your listening and communication skills while cultivating a greater sense of self-awareness, purpose, and compassion.

What is Deep Listening?

Deep listening, also known as mindful listening, is a learned skill of focused, compassionate, curious, generous, and mindful listening to oneself or another person.

It was originally coined and developed by composer and author Pauline Oliveros of the Center of Deep Listening.

Oliveros says deep listening is “a way of listening in every possible way to everything possible, to hear no matter what you are doing.”

Deep listening is well-known in the fields of music, psychology, and psychiatry but can be learned by anyone interested in improving their listening skills, cultivating better self-awareness, and finding greater acceptance of themselves and others.

There are many rewards of practicing deep listening. The primary one is that it fosters a deeper, more meaningful connection with ourselves, our loved ones, and those with whom we communicate.

A man and woman outside drinking tea and laughing as they practice deep listening.

How to Practice Deep Listening

There are many ways to practice deep listening, but they all require cultivating a mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness, whether it comes from meditation, prayer, a yoga practice, or spending time in nature, is an essential precursor to deep listening because it allows us to be fully present in the moment while enhancing focus.

Deep listening also involves: 

  • Intention setting—why do you want to be a better listener?
  • The willingness to release judgments—of yourself and others
  • Asking questions and being curious
  • Patience—with oneself and others
  • Time—to listen and time to practice
  • Reflection—on what’s been said or experienced

This is a broad overview of a lifetime practice, but it should give you a good idea of what’s involved.

Next, we’ll explore some exercises to help cultivate your deep listening skills.

7 Deep Listening Exercises

Becoming adept at deep listening doesn’t happen overnight. 

This is especially true for those who may tend to talk more than they listen or have trouble hearing people out or focusing during conversations. 

If this sounds like you, know you are not alone. 

Our society has deeply normalized the practice of shallow/defensive/distracted listening.

Think of all the times you’ve tried to talk to someone this week only to be interrupted by whatever text message or update came in on their phone. 

Or the last time you felt brave enough to share your social or political views with a friend, only to have them interrupt and steamroll you before you could finish.

Or even the last time your body tried to warn you that you were pushing yourself too hard, and you didn’t think twice about ignoring its signals.

In other words, don’t be too hard on yourself, as this is a chronic societal problem.

Instead, give yourself some appreciation for being willing to try something new. If enough people did, the world could change quite quickly.

Without further ado, let’s look at seven deep listening exercises you can start practicing today.

However, you will be much more successful if you set a formal intention or goal to do so.

A man and woman smiling at each other drinking tea and deep listening

1. Set an intention, goal, or resolution to improve your listening skills

It can be easy to say to yourself, “I’m going to become a better listener starting…now”. 

Although learning to release judgment and expectations can be a longer process, anyone can practice letting people finish their thoughts.

This could mean writing down your intention, once or daily, and the steps you’ll take to achieve it; sharing your goals with a trusted friend or partner to help keep you accountable; or even cementing that intention by signing up for a deep listening course.

No matter how you do it, make a point to commit to your deep listening practice by intention setting, goal setting, or even proclaiming a new year’s resolution.

2. Practice mindfulness daily

Mindfulness is the practice of cultivating a greater awareness of the present moment repeatedly.

Mindfulness is essential to improving your listening skills because, with practice, it will allow you to: 

  • Be more fully present and focused when listening to someone else
  • Help you develop a deeper sense of self-awareness so you can listen to your body’s cues

Research has confirmed mindfulness can help enhance focus, attention, and concentration while improving communication skills.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, all of which will serve as the foundation for developing deep listening skills.

Many proponents of deep listening, including Pauline Oliveros, recommend a seated meditation in which you sit comfortably, scan your body and observe how you feel, focus on your breath or a sound, and let thoughts come and go without judgment.

If seated meditation isn’t for you, consider other practices that quiet and focus the mind on the present moment, such as:

Certain herbs, such as Tulsi tea, Ashwagandha, and Shankhpushpi have been used in Ayurveda to help enhance meditation by creating a calm state of mind.

3. Practice DEAL: Drop Everything And Listen

No matter where you are in your deep listening practice, make a deal with yourself to give people your full attention when they come to you.

We call this DEAL: Drop Everything And Listen, and it works.

This means no typing while listening, no texting, no watching television, no listening to podcasts, and no daydreaming while listening.

The exceptions would be walking or moving and talking, which is meditative in and of itself.

Be sure to watch your body language, too, as a person will not feel heard if your arms are crossed over your chest, or your eyes wander around the room.

Just stop what you’re doing and focus on the person in front of you or on the phone or Zoom call. 

If you need a moment to refocus, just tell the person, “One quick moment and I’m all yours,” take a few centering breaths, and put on your listening ears.

Regarding self-listening, if your body is giving you cues that something’s awry (sweaty palms, racing heart, lots of yawning, back or neck pain, hunger), drop everything and listen more closely so you can correct course.

4. Be curious

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Listen more than you talk,” but it’s easier said than done sometimes, especially if we are triggered during conversations.

Mindfulness will help with this over time. 

However, a simple switch in mindset to curiosity versus defensiveness can make listening more than talking a lot easier.

So, the next time you converse with someone, simply be curious by asking yourself, “What can I learn about this person or situation?”

It can help to ask open-ended questions, like, “Can you tell more about that?” or “What was that like for you?” or “I’d love to know more about that. Can you expand on your ideas/thoughts/beliefs/experience, etc.?”

If it feels disingenuous at first, keep practicing. 

Curiosity is rooted in a sense of wonder, and we cannot hang onto or cultivate a sense of wonder without being vulnerable, and we cannot feel vulnerable without feeling safe.

So, remind yourself that you are safe and in control as an adult (and if you’re not feeling safe, end the conversation), and start asking some questions.

The great thing about curiosity is the more you start asking questions, the more naturally curious you become.

5. Let people finish before you interject

This one can be hard, especially when engaged in conversations about topics we hold dear.

However, deep listening requires hearing a person out without judgment or expectations.

If you’re unsure if someone is finished talking, it’s best to give some space, maybe three to five calm breaths, before you chime in.

It can also help to tell people you trust, “I’m working on not interrupting, so please call me out if I speak up too much or too soon.” This may also inspire others to work on their listening skills!

This doesn’t require repressing your voice or never speaking up—your time will come. 

Instead, you’re practicing giving space so a conversation can flow and evolve naturally.

Regarding inner listening, this relates to allowing yourself to feel whatever feeling or sensation you may have, positive or negative, without trying to stop or interrupt it.

6. Listen with more of your senses

We tend to think of listening as an auditory-only experience. 

However, we can also pick up a lot more from a conversation if we engage our visual senses. 

For example, observing things like body language, facial expressions, and a person’s breathing pattern can give us much more information than what they say sometimes.

Even aspects of touch, when appropriate and consensual, like a handshake or offering someone a hug if they’re struggling, can communicate a lot.

All this is a part of deep listening or learning to listen between the lines. 

Concerning inner listening or listening to ourselves, we can use different senses to become more aware of sensations in our body as they relate to our thoughts and feelings, in addition to tuning into our authentic inner voice.

7. Repeat back what someone has said to you to show you are listening

Most of us have experienced having our words said back to us when confronting someone about a challenge at work, school, or in therapy.

People do this because it’s an effective way to show you’re listening and that you care.

It also helps avoid miscommunications that could lead a conversation down an unproductive path.

For the aspiring deep listener, knowing you will repeat what you’ve heard is also an effective way to keep you focused.

This doesn’t mean you need to repeat every single thing a person tells you in a conversation because that gets old fast! 

Instead, aim to repeat at least portions of the significant points made by the other party to keep the conversation moving and keep your head in the game.

When practicing self-deep listening skills, consider keeping a journal to write down your observations about what your body and inner voice (or inner critic) are telling you to reflect on as you deepen your practice.

A group of friends outside drinking tea and laughing as they practice deep listening.

Finally, be sure to protect your energy

Deep listening is an amazing skill to practice, but it can take considerable energy—especially when diving into charged topics or engaging with certain people.

Keep this in mind as you work on your mindful listening skills.

Set boundaries, and only commit to long conversations or debates if you have the time, energy, or desire.

These can always be tackled at another time, or not.

After all, a big part of deep listening is learning to listen to ourselves—body, mind, and spirit. 

So make time for yourself and honor your intuition, inner voice, and gut or visceral feelings about what, or whom, does and does not serve you.

Finally, have patience with yourself. 

Deep listening is not a skill you master overnight; even the experts say the more they listen, the more they learn to listen.

Like mindfulness or enlightenment, deep listening is a lifelong practice that will continue to enrich our lives and the lives of others so long as we keep practicing.