How to influence people by listening with your senses, not just your brain.
When teaching leaders communication skills, I often ask, “Do you know how people feel when you enter the room?” After a few responses, I ask, “Do you know how they feel when you leave?” No matter how well you thought through the words you shared, the way you listened to them will make or break your ability to change how they feel and think.
Most listening is designed to gain information that will fulfill your needs. How often do you listen to people for these purposes:
- To collect data: You listen to know what to say or do next. You listen to formulate your argument, to compare your perspective to theirs, or to fill in what you think you are missing.
- To give an answer or solve a problem: You listen to know what advice to give when they quit talking.
- To obey protocol: You listen because you should, not because you want to.
Listening from the neck up
When you listen for information to formulate your response, you grab only some of their words. They expect you to hear more, and to understand how they feel even though it is hard to accurately decipher facial expressions.1
Listening while thinking annoys most people. Even if you care about them, they won’t feel connected to you in the conversation.
Listen to receive, not analyze
When you choose to be present and connect with someone, you listen beyond your analytical brain. You suspend analysis. You take in and accept their words, expressions, and emotions as elements of their experience. You acknowledge the story they offer as valid from their current point of view. You don’t insert your opinions or judgments. People feel heard and will listen to you in return.
You receive what people offer with the purpose:
- To connect: You listen to establish a feeling of connection.
- To let the person know you value them: You listen so people feel you care what they think even when your perspective differs from theirs.
- To explore, learn, and grow together: You listen with curiosity to learn from the amazing human in front of you. You enjoy when the conversation takes you somewhere new.
Receiving is an active, not passive act even though you suspend your thoughts. You activate your nervous system, receiving sensory input with your heart and gut. With sensory awareness, you can receive and discern what is going on with others beyond the words they speak. They also feel safe enough to openly talk to you.2 You can find a visualization on how to open all three processing centers of your nervous system — your head, heart, and gut — on this site.
Listening with your senses
Sensory awareness includes an inward awareness of your reactions in a conversation. Your reactions might be in response to what they tell you. You also might be reacting to what you energetically receive from them.3 You can sense people’s desires, disappointments, frustrations, hopes, and doubts even when they have trouble articulating these experiences themselves.
Being sensitive doesn’t mean being wishy-washy. It means you are aware of what is going on around you on a sensory level and can sense when people are conflicted or distressed. Most people claim their pets have this ability to sense their emotional needs. Humans can receive these emotional vibrations as well. We just don’t pay attention to them.
You were likely taught to ignore your sensory awareness as a part of your conditioning as a child. Were you ever told, “You shouldn’t take things so personally,” or, “You should toughen up?” These admonishments led you to rely on your cognitive brain for listening.
I’m often asked if venturing into the land of emotions is risky, especially at work. I hear, “I can’t allow people’s emotions to sway me.”
When you don’t allow people to get under your skin, you aren’t experiencing them fully. You are disconnected internally and externally. You put up a wall between yourself and the people you are with.
You might feel their stress, anxiety, and anger. Don’t let these emotions sit in your body.4 Empathy occurs when you receive what another is feeling using sensory awareness, but you need to let these sensations pass through you.5 If you feel their emotion, relax your body and let the emotion subside as you return to being fully present with the person you are with.
There is also emotional energy vibrating between you.6 You can grasp when they want you to back off and give them space. You sense when they are impatient to move on or if they want to take more time. You can tell when they just want to be heard or acknowledged, instead of getting your advice. Share what you notice, and then listen to their response.
You may feel vulnerable when you open yourself to receive what people express. This vulnerability is a strength. Alan Alda said, “Real listening is a willingness to let the other person change you.”7 They feel connected when you interact. They enjoy being with you. They are more open to changing their minds when you receive first and then share your ideas.
5 steps for building sensory awareness in conversations
- Silence your brain: When you quiet your chattering brain, you clear your sensory channels.
- Let go of knowing: Instead of thinking you know how the person will react, try curiosity. Unfortunately, the better you know someone, the more likely you quit being curious. Can you release knowing what people will say? You might be surprised.
- Release the need to be right: Ask questions to understand their perspective. Once they feel heard, you can say you have a different perspective. They will be more willing to hear your point of view.
- Listen with your heart and gut as well as your head: Before your conversation, open your heart with feelings of compassion or gratitude. Then, open your gut by feeling your courage.
- Test your instinct: When you feel an emotional sensation, share what you think they might be feeling, such as anger, frustration, sadness, or yearning. Accept their response. If you are wrong, your guess could still help them better understand themselves and feel you cared enough to understand.
Can you open yourself to fully receive what people offer? They will be more willing to hear your ideas and possibly change their minds if you do.
1 Alice Park. Emotions May Not Be So Universal After All, Time.com, March 6, 2014.
2 Shari M. Gellar and Stephen W. Porges. “Therapeutic Presence: Neurophysiological Mechanisms Mediating Feeling Safe in Therapeutic Relationships,” Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 2014, Vol. 24, No. 3, 178–192.
3 Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York: The Guilford Press; 2nd edition, 2012.
4 Agata Blaszczak-Boxe, “Too much emotional intelligence is a bad thing.” Scientific American Mind, March 1, 2017.
5 Marcia Reynolds, “Can You Have Too Much Empathy? When empathy breaks trust.” PscychologyToday.com, April 15, 2017.
6 Rollin McCraty, “The Energetic Heart: Bioelectromagnetic Interactions Within and Between People.” Chapter published in: Clinical Applications of Bioelectromagnetic Medicine, edited by P. J. Rosch and M. S. Markov. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2004: 541-562.
7 Alan Alda, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned. New York: Random House, 2005, p. 160.