How to Listen Mindfully

This post was originally published on the Mindful Leader blog in September 2020.

Many of us spend the majority of our days in conversations of one kind or another. This is particularly true for coaches, therapists, and other practitioners who spend their time supporting others’ development. Bringing greater mindfulness to how we approach conversations with anyone—our clients, colleagues, partners, children, friends, and others—holds the potential to make these conversations not only productive, but transformational.

There are two main elements to any conversation: speaking and listening. In this post, we’ll focus on the latter.

What are you listening for?

It turns out that there are layers to what we say and what we listen for. One Integral model breaks it down this way.

Layer 1: Facts

Layer 2: Emotions

Layer 3: Commitment

Layer 4: Impact

Suppose a friend is telling you about a recent family vacation. Here’s how the layers of the story might show up. (Notice that some of these elements could be conveyed in words, and others in tone of voice, mood, body language.)

Facts: We took a trip to the Grand Canyon. The drive there took six hours. The weather was mostly cool. We stayed at a historic hotel that served great breakfast. We were there for three days. One day we rode mules along the southern rim.

Emotions: The views were breathtaking, impossible to describe. I was choked up at every sunrise and sunset. The trip made me nostalgic for the time my family came here when I was a teenager.

Commitment: It was important to me to show my kids this part of the world and have this be something our family would always remember. Sometimes things went according to plan and other times they didn’t.

Impact: Are you with me in my joy and disappointment? Maybe I’ve inspired you to do something similar.

Did you notice if you were drawn automatically to one of these elements more than the others? What does it reveal about where you “hang out” in conversation?


Integral listening invites us to tune into what has meaning for the speaker and where the openings for transformation are. In the above example, there could be something about the memory of the childhood trip that is “up” or unresolved for this person (emotion). The fact that their intention for the trip (commitment) was challenged in some moments might point to some way they have of holding on that is unproductive for them. Or maybe it feels vital to this person that they told a memorable story (impact), pointing to a need to be seen or heard in a particular way.

If we focus only on facts, for instance, or are grabbed by the emotions, we might skip over what was important for the speaker and miss the opportunity to support them in exploring it further. When we’re not “hooked” by our own habits, we can listen on all levels simultaneously and pick up on what is important to the speaker. From there, we might ask a question or offer a mirroring comment that leads to an insight or shift in behavior.

This is where mindfulness comes in. We can begin to study our habitual patterns of listening to become aware of our habits and, over time, begin to expand our awareness to other dimensions of what is being said. This gives us a fuller picture of the person and how best to support them. Below is an exercise to get you started.

Self-Reflection: How I Listen

Think of a time recently when someone told you a story. It doesn’t have to be an epic tale; maybe it was just your child telling you about their day or a catch-up with a friend. Reflect on the following questions and, if you’d like, make some notes on each.

  1. What was the content of the story?
  2. What was the speaker’s mood, body language, tone of voice?
  3. What parts of the story stick with me or stand out in my memory?
  4. What might have been the most important aspects of the story for the speaker?
  5. How does this align (or not) with what I was listening for?
  6. What does this investigation show me about how I listen? How might I take these discoveries into future conversations?

If you want to dive deeper into this study you can do this exercise daily, reflecting each evening on a conversation you had that day. The more intentional we are about uncovering patterns, the more likely they are to start to shift and expand.

Experience and practice

Listening this way is something Integral Coaches are honing and refining all the time in conversations with clients and others in our lives. This kind of attunement shows us where the openings are to ask powerful—often simple—questions, that will take the speaker out of their own habitual focus and invite them to explore new territory.

The Integral Coaching Forum is a free two-hour webinar that gives you an opportunity to explore Integral speaking and listening, and practice it with your peers.

Joy Reichart is the Communications Director at New Ventures West.

Photo by garrett parker on Unsplash