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Book Review: The Zen of listening: Mindful communication in the age of distraction

Watch the Movie…..

Reham Shaaban, DO, FHM, FACP, AIAMC Board of Directors 

Program Director – Internal Medicine Residency Program, The Valley Hospital

Book Author: Rebecca Z Shafir. The Zen of listening: Mindful communication in the age of distraction

Have you ever read a book a couple of times?  Often refer to its lessons and tools to strengthen your own skills and build cohesive teams?  Remind yourself daily of its most notable key messages.  Get totally engrossed in a movie, absorbed in the actors and their lives? I have!!  

In a world already crowded with information, disinformation, and hyper-individualism, further barriers to effective communication and truly listening have been erected by a newfound work culture. Many of us have been isolated behind the barricades of screens (phones, tablets, computers) and transponded into the realm of the virtual world, with many of us likely multitasking in the background or zoned-out by meeting fatigue. In today’s virtual world and its complexities, our communication has become more impersonal and our critical listening skills further degraded.  

Without listening, truly listening and being present, there cannot be any form of understanding. Many of us listen to react and very few of us listen to understand. Without understanding, teams fall apart, and leaders often fail to lead.  “The Zen of Listening” guides us through how to filter out these distractions and be totally present as we listen.  According to the book’s author Rebecca Shafir, mindful listening provides a framework for analyzing the internal and external barriers to reaching a place of understanding. 

Becoming a better listener and ultimately, a better communicator 

Being present, attentive, empathetic, and connected to the speaker with interest, understanding, and curiosity are fundamental to becoming a better listener, as Shafir highlights. 

“The best Listeners see listening as a process rather than a goal.”

Before applying the book’s strategies, I have found that I was much more focused on listening to my critical internal voice and not to my team and partners. I found that I was listening for what I wanted to hear and not necessarily hearing the whole message. It’s hard to listen without prejudice, judgment, and feeling comfortable with being vulnerable - essential components to the mindful listening. 

“Listening intently even for a minute is one of the nicest gifts we can give to another human being”.

The Great Walls of Misunderstanding

Few of us are really good at listening and often face common barriers to listening effectively. Termed “the great walls of misunderstanding” barriers include:   

Background noise


Gender, race, and age prejudice

Physical appearance

Past experiences

Personal agendas

Focusing on the outcome versus the process of listening

Negative self-talk

Chapter four explores each of these barriers and how they are learned through culture, family, media, and become preset as our preferences ultimately transforming into our points of view, biases, and stereotypes.  Being comfortable with being vulnerable, incorrect, recognizing the diversity of thoughts and embracing the ideas and that everyone has something valuable to say and contribute are essential tools to breaking through these misunderstanding walls to effective communication. 

If we let go of our egos, we'll find that there’s something to learn from everyone. Both extremes - lack of self-confidence and arrogance - are manifested through our egos and ultimately inhibit our ability to fully be present and hear what someone is trying to say. There are several practical exercises throughout the book that “crack a few walls” that can assist in mitigating our egos through attentive analysis, challenging us to venture outside our comfort zones. 

Mindfulness and Meditation 

These practices allow us a healthy outlet for relieving pressure and being focused under stress. 

As listeners, meditation allows our minds to hear with less distortion new ideas and points of view. After a few weeks of practice, you will notice that you are less anxious when hearing ideas that differ from your point of view. With anxiety under control, you can focus your attention on getting and retaining the message. 

Adopt a Movie Mindset

The concept that resonated with me the most from the book that I have shared with my team and peers focused on the “Movie Mindset” and how to turn your self-interest into an interested self.   In this chapter, Shafir likens effective listening to watching a movie.  

Good Movies have a way of drawing us into the characters’ consciousness, values, and lifestyle.  We, the audience empathize with the characters, often to the point of feeling their fear or sadness. We leave the theater with the thought that our connection with the characters, at least in a small way has changed our lives. Our mood and our scope of understanding has been altered by forgetting ourselves for a while to view another’s perspective.

This message so resonated with me and has influenced the way I practiced listening. Shifting to a movie mindset is shifting to the speaker’s reality with a simple aim: To understand them and connect with them.  

Forgetting yourself and getting into the speaker’s movie is like going on vacation from your ego.

This idea became a huge part of my team development at work. When we notice someone is not listening or that we as a team needed a nonjudgmental listening reset, we would tell each other “watch the movie” and everyone would understand what that meant.  Turning your self-interest into an interested self. 

Listening to ourselves

Denial, interrogation, advice giving, and psychoanalysis are listening stoppers. While silence, reassurance and paraphrasing are listening to encouragers. Using examples, Shafir explores these listening encourager strategies demonstrating how they can foster or terminate the conversation.  Through exercises, you can try to understand your own tendencies and how using mindful listening can help change your responses to be more empathetic, curious, and supportive. 

Listening to yourself, like listening to others, is an art.  It requires mindfulness to match your intent with appropriate words and be sensitive to the way others perceive them.

The book highlights some of the least desirable speaking habits that may become communication obstacles including swearing, interrupting, talking too much, using jargon, long pauses, making self-deprecating comments, dropping names, and avoiding eye contact.   A crucial part of the communication awareness communication is the body language cues from the speaker as well as the listener(s).   

What’s your innate tendency to respond? Do you find that you use these response styles more often than others? Reflect on the last conversation you had, what tool did you use? What did the listener use? How did it feel?

Advice giving, denial and interrogation are self-centered response styles, and they send the message of aggressive, ego-driven closed mindedness.  Conversely, paraphrasing, silence and reassurance are speaker-supportive styles.

Listening under Stress

When the stakes are high, the situation is uncomfortable, or with heightened anxiety and stress, our ability to effectively communicate and listen breaks down.  Under stress, we tend to look inwards, and the internal dialogue and possibly negative self-talk occupies our thinking. One of the key elements in achieving effective listening and communication under stress is to shift the focus from oneself to the big picture and establish the mindset of the flexible thinker “one who is willing to consider a range of alternatives to reduce potential stresses.” Through mindfulness and stepping back we can become more grounded. 

Bottom Line

This book recommends meditating each day, starting with a few minutes, and working your way up to create a mindful framework with reduced stress, anxiety, and more control over our internal and external dialogues.  Each chapter features interactive exercises and day to day applications which makes it a good read for easy applicability.  Adopt a movie mindset - to share in someone else’s thoughts, stories, and daily life - to see things from their perspective; to allow them the spotlight.  This connection will positively influence outcomes.  

I invite you to start watching the movies!  And Happy Listening

 Shafir RZ. The Zen of listening: Mindful communication in the age of distraction. Quest Books; 2003.