How to get into the Ideal State for Active Listening

January 25, 2023 | Written by Samuel Newland, CFP.

two individuals sitting at a desk, engaging in conversation and listening attentively to eachother

In the last blog article, we discussed how active listening is associated with a tripling of influence and simple methods for doing so. The simple explanation given for why this is the case is that people like to be listened to and understood. But why?

For many, the answer may be self-evident. People like it. No further explanation is necessary. However, if we look under the hood for a moment and explore what is happening at the molecular level, we may be able to glean some important information. Before we get to the final idea, let’s start from the beginning.

The natural question to ask after learning how important active listening is: What is the best state to be in to be a good active listener? Beyond that, what are the best activities for attaining that state? And, out of curiosity, what neuro-chemicals and chemical cascades are associated with this emotional state? And which activities release which of these chemicals?

And, here are the answers: 

  • An open, nonjudgmental mindset is the best state for active listening. 
    • Remaining as calm, objective, and neutral as possible allows you to listen and understand the other rather than interject and interrupt and focus on how you feel about the situation rather than how they do.
  • Meditating, journaling, exercise, social support, and counselling and therapy are considered the most efficient methods for acquiring an open, nonjudgmental mindset.
    • In addition to those activities, massage, sunlight exposure, healthy diet, good sleep, cold showers, and sauna are associated with the state of mind.
  • Oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and GABA are the neuro-chemicals associated with an open, nonjudgmental state. For those that are years out from their last chemistry class, here’s a quick review:
    • Oxytocin
      • Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone” because it is released in response to social bonding and attachment. It has been linked to feelings of trust, empathy, and connection with others.
    • Serotonin
      • Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is involved in mood regulation and feelings of well-being. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to negative mood states such as anxiety and depression.
    • Dopamine
      • Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved in reward and pleasure. It is released in response to pleasurable experiences and has been linked to feelings of motivation and focus.
    • GABA
      • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate anxiety and stress. Low levels of GABA have been linked to increased anxiety and stress, while higher levels have been linked to feelings of relaxation and calm.
  • For the results of which activities release which neuro-chemicals, please see the charts below:

Chart demonstrating different activities and how they affect different types of neurotransmitters : oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, GABA

Chart demonstrating different foods and how they affect different types of neurotransmitters : oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, GABA

  • Some important notes to keep in mind:

    • These activities release all four of the neurochemicals:
      • Positive Social Interaction
      • Journaling
      • Massage 
      • Meditation 
      • Good Sleep
      • Cold Showers or Sauna
      • Being Listened to and Understood
    • The “x” indicates that there is evidence that it is released. It does not indicate how robust the release of that neurochemical is. 
      • For example, perhaps exercise helps liberate a lot of serotonin and dopamine for you and puts you in a better listening state than an activity that releases all four of the neuro-chemicals to a lesser degree.
    • Positive social interaction is the catchall for social support and counselling and therapy.
    • Meditation includes breath work and prayer as well. 
    • Sunlight exposure is especially impactful for sunlight acquired before 10am. It is one of the most effective measures for both waking up and falling asleep easily.
    • Do not get a heat stroke from the sauna or hypothermia from a cold shower. Common recommendations are 1-3 minutes of a cold shower and 10-20 minutes in the sauna.
      • Work up to those times if they seem difficult at first. Your body will adapt.
      • Always consult your medical doctor before adopting any risky behavioural changes.

One thing that jumped out to me when creating this analysis is that the same chemicals are released during positive social interactions as someone who is being listened to and understood. It seems that on a chemical level, someone being listened to is having a positive social interaction. So by actively listening, you are providing a positive social interaction to your client. You are releasing oxytocin in their body so that they trust you and dopamine, serotonin, and GABA so that they are relaxed, focused, and feeling good. 

Another insight is that by producing these chemicals in yourself, they allow you to listen better and in turn produce them in your client. In a way, it is a scientific basis of religious doctrines of reaping what you sow and of more new age spiritual ideas of attracting what you are. Scientifically, it is another example of mirror neurons in action and emotions being contagious. While listening, positive social interactions, and massage require other people, meditation, journaling, and others habits are purely solo sports. These practices generate wellbeing from nothing – as if from the ether.

At the end of the day, this is not an exhaustive list of things you can do. There is no one size fits all formula for putting you in the proper mindset for being an active, empathetic listener. You know what works well for you. This info can be used as a basis for creating a routine for keeping you in the mindset of being a good listener, or getting you back in the groove if you are in a rut. 

While practicing the conversation techniques for being a good listener is effective, focusing on the mechanistic aspects that chemically put you in the right mood for listening will naturally make your conversations better as well. You can execute the words with the conversation techniques – like mirroring, paraphrasing, and admitting the negative – perfectly. But if you are not in a relaxed mindset, your tone and body language may transmit anxiety to your client and create anxiety in them as well. Overall, by engaging in practices that put you in an open, nonjudgmental state, you will also be taking care of your client by listening to them, being their financial counselor and therapist, and giving them a positive social interaction.

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  • Have any specific questions about the concepts or ideas in this article series or do not think it would be a bad idea to learn more about how to have better conversations
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