Quieting the Mental Chatter

Listening effectively requires having a clear, engaged mind. But our brains are constantly buzzing with all kinds of thoughts that will distract us from such a focused, empathetic conversation: things like self-deprecating dialog, concern for our own agenda, a conversation we had earlier in the day, an email we’re about to write, wondering what the weather is like outside. You get the idea.

How do we quiet all this mental chatter so we can concentrate our brain power on helping the individual we’re listening to?

Two chairs in a peaceful setting

Gary J. Wood, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s about them, not you

If you want to give your energy to understanding the other person, you have to turn off a lot of things. Let go of your expectations for what will happen in this conversation or where you want it to go. Instead,

When the conversation begins, don’t frame it as something that you would like to accomplish or something you need to fix. Instead, ask empathetic questions that guide you to understanding what they are thinking and feeling.

If your aim as a leader is to serve people, endeavoring to listen to them will go a long way in helping you gain their trust. Dale Carnegie writes:

You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.

Focus on them.

Share only when they’re ready

If you have something to share, wait until they are ready.

Let your intuition guide you when you think they might be willing to hear what you have to offer. Then lead with a question like, “May I share something with you?” This signals to them that you are moving out of their fortress, back across the bridge, and into your castle.

Be available, even when you’re distracted

Part of being a manager is getting interrupted. You might be deep in concentration on an email you’re writing or a project you’re working on. The chat messages might keep piling in as you talk to the person standing in your doorway.

Let those things go. The person who came to ask your help needs your full concentration. If you’re distracted by your computer or thoughts about what you’re going to do next, you’ll miss the subtle cues that are so crucial in conversation.

People often drop hints that they want to discuss something in more depth, but they’re trying to gauge whether you’re a safe person to discuss it with. These could be body language, passing comments, or other verbal hints. If you care enough and are listening closely, you’ll notice these things and can signal to them that you are a safe space where they can discuss their ideas.

Especially if you’ve recently made the switch to management from being an individual contributor, it may be hard to overcome the friction of context switching so frequently. Remember that your job now is empowering your team and making them more productive, even if your own productivity appears to suffer in the short term. Making these sacrifices for them will be worthwhile.

Don’t let your self-esteem get in the way

Another thing that may hold you back from contributing are your own self-doubts or lack of confidence in your skills.

Even if you feel underqualified for your role, or you feel inadequate to take on the situation at hand, don’t let those thoughts prevent you from giving your full attention and compassion to the other person.

Let these thoughts float by on the river of your mind. Notice them, acknowledge them, but ultimately let them go. Instead, allow your energy to focus on the conversation and understanding what this person needs. Doing this will make you a better listener, and your conversations will be more successful.


Your mind can be a busy place, but it has great power to help those on your team if you can focus it. Let your empathy and intuition do their best work by quieting your mental chatter.


Practicing meditation will make it much easier to observe your thoughts and decide which ones are worth entertaining. It is a skill that must be developed and strengthened before it can be used effectively in the stressful or unexpected situations in which you may need it.

Consider taking a few minutes each day to train your mind through meditation.