How a Simple Visual Can Make You a Better Listener


Some conversations are a mutual back and forth. Others focus more on one participant or another. No matter what type of conversation I’m in, it can be hard to listen well. I’m easily distracted by what’s happening at the next table or the book I just read, by my to-do list or my stomach growling, by my reaction to what the other person is saying or planning my response.

I use a very simple mental picture to help me navigate these distractions. I imagine a shelf just above my head. During a conversation, whenever I notice myself following a thought that distracts me from the speaker, I picture myself grabbing it and placing it on the shelf. (In this visual exercise, my thoughts tend to look like books, by the way.)

Once the thought is on my shelf, it’s no longer in my line of sight. I am free to turn my full attention back to the person speaking. I still, however, know exactly where I can find the thought. If I need it later on in the conversation, I can reach up and pull it back down at the appropriate time. Otherwise, I can attend to the thought when the conversation is over.

Sometimes while listening to another person I notice something I need to explore in my own life. Other conversations spark an idea I want to write about. Later, when I’m on my own, I can get out my pen and paper to tackle these thoughts. If, however, I let myself pursue them before the conversation is over, I likely won’t hear much more of what the other person has to say. On the shelf they go.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the urge to jump in with our opinion or advice or to share our own experience. There can be a time and place for those things, but when I’m busy formulating what I’m going to say, it’s hard to also listen to what the other person is saying. And I’m certainly not going to want to ask questions when I’m eager to tell them exactly what they should do. Putting my reactions on the shelf helps me stay curious and supportive. All my insights and opinions will still be there if the time comes that they are needed.

Sometimes I just plain old have too much on my mind. I can compose three emails in my head and be halfway through a mental grocery list before I realize I’ve lost the thread of our conversation. All those things can wait. They need to wait if I’m going to listen well.

If I know I’m going into a conversation, I try to take a few moments beforehand to imagine myself cleaning off the shelf. This gives me a more concrete way to clear my mind. I might take the time to journal about unresolved issues or jot down a to-do list. I picture myself filing away anything that isn’t relevant to the conversation or at least stacking it neatly off to one side.

I don’t always remember to clear off my shelf. Sometimes conversations take me by surprise. Fortunately, no matter how cluttered the shelf has become, there’s always room for more. I still don’t always remember my shelf during conversations, but it makes a difference when I do.

It may seem silly to visualize furniture in my head instead of simply letting my thoughts go, but it helps me. Elaborate strategies and willpower aren’t always the most effective ways to form new habits. Sometimes it’s the little quirky tricks that can make the difference.

I’d love to know…what little routines or visualizations do you use to help you make what you want to do a little more concrete? Does shelving distracting thoughts like books on a shelf resonate with you? What image would you choose instead? This week, think of an area of your life where you could use a reminder and see if you can think of a simple visualization to help you.