Why You Don’t Listen and What To Do About It

One bad habit that people will generally admit to is that of not being fully present when others talk. Instead of being engaged with what is being said, people report becoming distracted by a broad range of ‘inside the head’ thinking such as a forthcoming presentation to management, an ever expanding to do list, thinking about a clever response, or more random things like I think I need a haircut.

Whilst we can perceive habits as only being related to behaviour, it is also possible to create thinking and feeling habits. These habits can develop quite subconsciously and can be something about which we remain unaware until they seriously impact on a relationship or our ability to perform our job.

So whilst habits help us to effortlessly manage the millions of bits of information we are constantly receiving, they can also have the effect of dulling our awareness of what is actually going on moment by moment in our lives. The more we operate on automatic pilot the greater the chance of finding ourselves having problems in our work and lives generally. This is particularly true as we engage with new experiences and people where existing information and processes may no longer be relevant.

Habits and Mindfulness

Habits and mindfulness can be considered to be opposite ends of a continuum. The very act of doing something on auto pilot such as daydreaming is at odds with being present and in the moment. Support for this dichotomy has come from studies of brain processes that are evident when our mind wanders and also when we are being mindful.

Norman Farb and colleagues from the University of Toronto, identified two brain pathways; the narrative and direct experience circuits. Our narrative, also referred to as our default circuit, quite literally means we are inside our heads creating stories about the past, present or future, including out of context and often random thoughts. By comparison, when our direct experience circuit is in operation we experience information coming into our senses in real time. This allows us to process more incoming data, permitting us to more readily take in the reality of our experience. There is no surprise that this helps with decision making and also allows ease of access to, and monitoring of our own internal mental states – our impulses, thoughts and feelings.

The kicker is this. When one circuit is in control the other has depleted resources to function. This explains why someone who is deep in thought (narrative) may appear to oblivious to what is happening in the world around them (direct experience). Conversely, by simply focusing on our senses through the simple practice of noticing our breathing, we activate our direct experience circuit which has the effect of quietening our inner minds chatter.

How to Make Purposeful Engagement a New Habit

Mindfulness enables us to notice habitual thinking and emotions and identify the moment that our focus drifts. With practice we can notice when the intended object of our focus is no longer in our frame of attention and consciously choose to bring it back. So what can you do to start wiring a new habit of purposeful engagement? These five steps will help.

  1. Identify bad habit that currently plays out when you are in a conversation. Now think about your values and the person/leader you want to be in your interactions going forward, and based on this what your preferred approach might look like. By connecting to a personal value or vision of the person you want to be, you activate your motivation to initiate and sustain the change
  2. Identify opportunities where you can experiment with being mindful of your thoughts and feelings and can practice being more engaged. This may be interactions that you know are coming up or ones that you choose to initiate with this purpose in mind
  3. Sometimes we just have so much going on that our attention is consumed by all the information we are managing, so practice clearing your head prior to these interactions. Try focusing on taking a few deep breaths and noticing how this feels. Click on the Stop to Start short mindfulness exercise to help you.
  4. When you are in a conversation, note your minds tendency to wander off and gently bring it back each time. The more you do this the easier it will become. Mindfulness is simply the ability to focus on the present experience and to allow thoughts and feelings to pass without getting hooked and dragged into their story
  5. Reflect on your experience. What did you learn? What was different? How did enacting your new approach feel? The important aspect here is you are coupling emotions with action to plant the seeds of a new and valuable habit, while at the same time disturbing previously wired connections and associated habits

If you struggle it’s OK, discomfort is something you can learn to appreciate when it is in the service of making changes that you value. Remember what you practice you get good at, and mindfulness is an ability that you develop over time. Why not try it now?


Author: Graeme ByeJanuary 3, 2017


Graeme Bye is an organisational psychologist with a background in corporate organisations in HR and Leadership Development.

He coaches individuals and teams and includes mindfulness practices and techniques to improve effectiveness, manage stress and achieve focus.