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What Your Brain Does Every Time You Think You’re Listening

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Tuesday, August 8, 2023

by Mubeena, Founder at

Chances are, you’re not listening correctly. We were never taught the art of listening at school. What does it mean to listen truly? In this article, I bust the myths surrounding our assumptions about what good listening is and explain what our brains actually do when we think we’re listening. And here’s what to do to improve this self-defining skill.

Most people don’t know how to listen. Don’t believe me? Then do my test. Get a group of people at random to listen to a short lecture. How many people in the group remembered the talk? You will find that the average person wouldn’t recall half the talk, even if they seem to be in the act of listening.

Now, you might blame the speaker for being boring and not engaging enough. Or you may blame the results of this experiment on the poor memory of the group. But let me push back and insist that your group did not proactively listen.

The truth is that our cultural upbringing has not taught us the art of listening very well. Remember how you were told as a child, “Pay attention!” “Be quiet and listen!” “Don’t daydream!” These expressions have been nothing but punitive.

As adults, we’ve developed negative assumptions about listening, such as high intelligence and reading levels are required for this ability. Our school systems place high importance on reading and have not focused on the oral part of communication. Listening has thus been left to degenerate.

There is a valid reason for why concentrating on listening is tough. It’s because we think much faster than we speak. The average speech rate in the western English-speaking world is 125 words per minute. That is ultra-slow motion for the human brain to process. We’re asking our brain to compute words at an extremely slow pace, which makes it frustrating for us to concentrate.

Our brains have no choice but to process other thoughts that come its way while listening. In other words, when we are listening, we tend to have spare time in our brains. The key to great listening is how effectively we use this extra headspace.

Here is how to effectively use the extra space in your mind as you process what someone is saying:

Think Ahead of the Talker

When words are spoken, think about your own conclusions about them. This might sound counterintuitive to what listening is, but when you engage and interact with the words of the speaker in your mind, you are using the extra headspace you have while processing the words coming at you. You are not making final conclusions or premature judgements. All you’re doing is concluding what the speaker is saying for that moment. Don’t be afraid to amend your conclusions the more the speaker talks.

When you practice mindful self-interaction while the speaker talks, you are training your brain to avoid distractions and lengthening your attention span.

Analyze the Evidence

Think about the supporting points your speaker is offering to confirm what they’re saying. If the speaker isn’t offering much evidence for their argument, know in your mind that the argument is incomplete. The key is not to say it out loud until the person is finished making their point and has paused. Practicing the use of logic, analyzing an argument’s premises, and having strong criteria of what makes a point valid will increase your ability to listen effectively. You aren’t just passively hearing what someone is saying. You are summing up their stance within the safety of the extra space in your head.

Listen Between the Lines

When a speaker is talking, look for hidden meanings in between their spoken words. This is not about putting words in their mouth. It’s about paying close attention to nonverbal communication, including body language, facial expressions, gestures, voice pitch and tone. Ninety percent of communication is offered through nonverbal means. As a listener, what people say between the lines through gestures can give you an added advantage to understand a speaker’s motivation and offers you the opportunity to ask whether the speaker is being genuine in their speech or has deeper meanings to offer than what is presented on the surface. Read them like you would a mystery novel.

Synthesize Ideas, Not Facts  

You’ve probably thought that good listening amounts to being able to regurgitate facts provided by a speaker. On the contrary, understanding ideas is what makes a good listener. Facts are laid out only as a support to the bigger idea. The tendency to focus on facts is illustrated in many students who take copious notes during school lectures or employees who are in training sessions. Instead of writing down big ideas that a collection of facts leads to, most write down word for word what a teacher says in the classroom. Most people do not synthesize the information they receive. Paint the bigger picture by listening.

Regulate Emotional Filters 

There is one instance where listening becomes easy and a breeze. It is when the speaker talks about our own views and resonates with what we believe in, and thus we emotionally connect with the speaker. When we hear something that is against our worldview, our brain becomes overstimulated, and we end up tuning out. Either way, our powers of critique are put to rest by the emotions we feel. So, my suggestion is to wait before you make a final evaluation. Exercise patience by withholding judgment if you find yourself reacting emotionally. But here’s the ultimate thing to do – look for evidence that goes against your deeply held views. It will make you objective in your dealings and build empathy for others, despite opposing philosophies.

The next time you are in a seminar, lecture or one-to-one conversation, apply the mental exercises above. Before the communication takes place, prepare yourself to use that extra headspace you know is coming while the speaker talks. Your brain wants not only to help you absorb and retain information. It is egging you on to become a well-rounded person by objectively evaluating the information, the person in front of you and assimilating the big ideas that could change your world.

Summary of Article

The Big Ideas

01. Brains are Fast

We speak at a much slower rate than what the brain processes. That is why we find it difficult to concentrate while listening to someone. Your brain will look for other distractions to fill time gaps.

02. Extra Head Space

When we process what someone is saying, an extra space is created inside our brains. The key to listening truly is how we effectively use this additional headspace to assimilate ideas.

03. Mental Exercise

Withhold judgement, seek evidence and study nonverbal communication to assess your speaker’s stance. You can develop listening skills to an extent that will change you deeply. 

final thought


Interacting with the self is the essence of true listening. Don’t succumb to conditioned assumptions that good listeners are more intelligent or that they have good memories. The important activity is to train your brain to talk to itself during lag in time between what the speaker is saying and your brain processing that information. Make use of that lag by interacting with your own thoughts about what the speaker is saying. Look for the bigger idea, the patterns, the things they’re not saying directly, and what you believe about it. The most courageous thing a listener can do is to seek evidence that goes against their point of view. Do not let pre-set emotions cloud your listening experience. True listening will expand your mind, increase empathy and allow you to step into being more than what you think you are.

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Mubeena is the Founder of Listen Truly, helping adults get the clarity and relief they deserve without psychotherapy. She started working as a professional listener out of her need for spiritual growth and her desire to practice non-judgment. If you would like to learn more, sign up for a free orientation session.

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