Active listening can be difficult for four main reasons. One is force of habit. Many people follow the same pattern in every interaction. It varies culturally, but one common pattern for negotiators in the US is to start nice, go through the list of issues, get testy, withdraw and sulk, come back reluctantly, then reach agreement. People are so stuck in their pattern there is no room to listen. Another is distraction from our own internal chatter and moment to moment physical discomforts – the psychologists use the term “internal distractors.” The third is difficulty in connecting with others, which is sometimes a skill that has not been learned and sometimes, as with people on the autistic spectrum, a biological difficulty. The fourth is learning to listen without judging. Most people can learn to do better.
For many people, learning to quiet and bypass internal distractors is a very powerful tool. Any form of meditation will help with the sound of our own voices in our heads, which then helps with listening. Accepting one’s own physical discomfort in the process also helps with the judging bit. That represents at least two of the four roadblocks to listening.
There is also a very easy qigong exercise to start building your potential. It is called zhan zhuang, or standing practice. For the first position, take your shoes off and stand up. Keep your arms out from your body slightly. Feel a weight pulling at your tailbone, and lightness in the crown of your head like a balloon is pulling it upward. Breathe naturally with your diaphragm, so that you can feel your stomach rising and falling with each breath. Now just stand there. Feel the alignment of your body and any other internal sensations that come to you. Start with a minute or two at a time. Work your way up. When you get to five minutes you will start to see results. 20 minutes is a good goal, since we naturally seem to move in 20-minute cycles of concentration. This position is called Wu Ji, a term from Daoist theology referring to the formless void before creation from which the world ultimately flows – kind of like the “darkness on the face of the waters” from the book of Genesis. While one can get mystical about this exercise, it is immensely practical, both in terms of health benefits (balance, strength, alignment, reducing tension, even some minimal cardio) and increasing the ability to listen. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it even increases the amount of qi available to you. For those readers looking for kung fu tactics, standing practice is the fundamental exercise for developing internal strength in taiji and certain other internal martial arts. All the fancy hand-waving in the world does no good without the strength to back it up.
There are many further levels of zhan zhuang, but this one is a good start. Give it a try. Whether your goal is to be a better martial artist, mediator, arbitrator or negotiator, listening is a critical skill, and if you can get physical benefits out of the learning process, so much the better.