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August 27, 2023 7 minutes to read · 1500 words

Mindfulness 101: Listening as a Way of Becoming

By Melanie Bragg

Lawyers are talkers. Many of us have the gift of gab. That innate skill and talent often takes us to career heights as we dazzle our audiences, jurors, and judges and as we bowl over our opponents. Oratory skills are great to develop, yet the skill of listening actively and attentively is an equally compelling goal to achieve that pays dividends in the workplace (and in the home, as well).

Listening to Ourselves, Listening to Others

The consistent and dedicated practice of mindfulness teaches us to listen to ourselves. As we begin to listen more deeply to our minds and bodies, we begin to notice and appreciate things about ourselves that we may have never noticed before. Sometimes, it is the good things, and then other times, we notice those not-so-nice parts of ourselves. That process can launch us into “parts work” or “shadow work,” depending on our bravery and effort. (Check out the book The Shadow Work Journal by Keila Shaheen for more information.) As a result of tapping into and working with our subconscious, our lives become richer, and we can change our daily routines to better serve our desires and goals.

I’ve been deep into some shadow work this summer, and it dawned on me the other day that as we learn to listen to ourselves through our mindfulness practices, we can also, as an important addition, develop the practice of listening more deeply and fully to others. Mastering the practice of being totally present and in active listening mode with others can enhance our skills in all forms of human connection as lawyers and as human beings.

This is something I’ve worked on for a while. Many years ago, a college friend told me soon after we met that I “talked too much.” That hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew I was a talker and that I wasn’t afraid to raise my hand to answer a question in class or even propose a discussion, but I didn’t realize it was affecting my relationships. I really liked this person, so I ran out and bought a book called Listening as a Way of Becoming by Earl Koile so that I could learn to be a better listener. As an aside, you can imagine how happy it made me while writing this column to read a review on Amazon that was posted about the book on April 22, 2023, that says: “The book Listening as a Way of Becoming is an out-of-print book that is an old treasure on empathy development. We did not expect to find it, but Amazon had the book and promptly shipped it.” The book had just come out the month I bought it in 1977, and it was a bestseller. It changed my life. I still have my copy. I guess I can say that was the beginning of my personal growth work.

I wish I could say that I became a great listener from that day forward. I can’t. But what I can say is that I have had an awareness of the importance of the skill, and I have done a significant amount of work around active listening and really making sure people know that I hear them. In my shadow work, I realized my need to be heard as well. I have noticed that the deeper my mindfulness practice gets, the easier it becomes.

Active Listening

In my work with Jack Canfield, the co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books and the author of Success Principles, I learned the value of listening as a process of witnessing others in the exercises we did. It was an integral part of the process of self-growth. We all want to be heard. In our fast-paced world today, do you ever find yourself realizing you just wasted your breath because you were not heard? Or do you ever realize you are tuning out when someone is talking? I have experienced both.

I propose that the better we get at listening, the more we will be heard. It’s funny how those paradoxes in life work out. I have incorporated these types of exercises in my mindfulness CLEs where lawyers get ethics credit. In the exercises, one person talks, and the other person listens for one to three minutes. No conversation. I have found that it is so hard for participants not to start talking during the exercises. They get so excited. I encourage them to really follow the instructions because the listening part of the exercise is just as challenging and as important as the talking part. When both parties are heard, there is a feeling of comradery and connection. I believe if we did more of this with each other, we would have better relationships and outcomes all the way around.

Another opportunity I had to learn about the process of active listening as a mindfulness practice was during the 23 years I spent going to a Carmelite monastery for weeklong spiritual retreats. On the Sunday of the week, there was a group brunch. All the retreatants helped put the breakfast together and helped clean up. During the brunch, there was one conversation with the group. The unspoken protocol was a prohibition on side talking or breaking out into individual conversations. It was challenging for me at first, but I grew to appreciate the practice. I love the idea of having one conversation in bigger groups. It is an exercise in and of itself, and it really bonds the group and promotes a spirit of inclusion.

Listening will always be something I can get better at and improve. I love to share, and I really do love to listen. I just need to make sure I convey that message to my clients, family, and friends in the best and most effective way possible. I ask you this month to begin to think about your listening skills and see if there is any room for improvement. Why not challenge yourself to put some time into making sure you are listening to yourself first and then to others in turn?

Below is an exercise you can do that will help you develop these skills. Try it and see if it helps.

Dedicated Listening Exercise

This exercise requires a partner. Ask a friend or loved one to join you for ten minutes of practice. This person may be a complete beginner to mindfulness or have a practice of his or her own. It doesn’t matter!

Whomever you choose, they should be somebody you trust. The practice will require some vulnerability. It isn’t easy to share sometimes.

In this exercise, you both will be working with the practice of listening mindfully. The partner who is listening should listen attentively with a clear mind and no judgment.

Try to be present with the experience of listening and let go of the need to respond. While listening, pay attention to how not talking feels, and make a note of where you feel it in your body. Retain awareness of your own experience as you take in the words the other is saying.

  • Sit down at eye level with your partner.
  • Choose one person to speak first while the other listens. Maybe the one with the shortest hair goes first. You decide.
  • Set a timer for four minutes.
  • The person who speaks first can begin talking about whatever you choose for the subject—it can be the things they are grateful for, their goals and intentions for their lives, or even what they did during the day.
  • When the timer goes off, switch roles.
  • The other person can now talk about his or her goals and intentions while the first person practices mindful listening.
  • When the timer completes, spend a few minutes conversing.

How was the practice? What was it like to sit and just listen? Was it difficult not to respond? How hard was it to really talk when you had an active listener?

Explore what it means to be present while listening. When speaking, practice mindful speech. Be honest, allow yourself to be vulnerable, and observe the words you are saying.

Over time, it will be easier, and you will notice subtle shifts in your awareness of how you listen and how people respond to you. All this will improve your interpersonal skills. Making others feel that you heard them and that you care is a great attribute to cultivate, even if it does not come as naturally for some as it does for others.

For me, it is a continual process. There are always more layers of the onion. Happy peeling!

I am committed to your success. Until next time . . . namaste. Please let me know if you have any tips, sources, or experiences with mindfulness you want to share at [email protected].

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour. —Zen proverb

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Melanie Bragg

Bragg Law PC

Melanie Bragg ([email protected]) is a former Chair of the GPSolo Division and a former GPSolo Division Delegate to the ABA House of Delegates, where she currently serves as a representative for the Houston Bar Association. Her firm, Bragg Law PC, is a general civil firm in Houston, Texas, specializing in probate, real estate, and small business representation. She is the author of three books, HIPAA for the General Practitioner (ABA, 2009), Crosstown Park (Koehler Books, 2013), and Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul (ABA, 2019), and she is a frequent CLE, motivational, and mindfulness speaker.

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Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 13, Number 1, August 2023. © 2022 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.