Becoming a Better Listener

Becoming a Better Listener

Becoming a Better Listener

communicating effectively

“Listening well is about giving up control. It’s releasing your perspective, holding back your impulse to speak or prove yourself. It’s living in the moment with the person you are listening to and truly feeling their world.” – Brendon Burchard


Becoming a Better Listener


Have you ever been in conversation with your partner or a friend and noticed that you can’t recall what they just said, or perhaps you hear them talking, the words are familiar, but the meaning isn’t setting in? I’m sure you aren’t intentionally tuning them out, but when it comes time to reply, are you engaged enough to offer intentional feedback? 

Listening well is a required skill for productive communication. If your partnership or friendships struggles with communication (and to be transparent, many do!), a good place to start is assessing your listening skills. 

“Listening” seems simple enough, tune in and do your best to not tune out. But there is so much more that goes into the art of listening than just, well, listening! As a couples counselor and individual therapist, I work with clients on becoming better listeners, and today I want to discuss with you the importance of this fundamental communication skill and tips you can implement in your conversations right away for becoming a better listener.


Struggling to Listen


Listening becomes a second priority to internal contemplation generally for one of two reasons:

  1. You have personal thoughts on what is being shared with you, or it’s reminded you of a story or point that you’d like to share. In order to not forget your train of thought, you have now tuned out the person speaking and are tossing around your own ideas waiting for a moment to interject.


  2. You cannot relate to what is being shared with you, or you are uninterested in the topic or person who is talking. Perhaps unintentionally, you have moved on to other thoughts and ideas – leaving the conversation altogether. 

Let’s take a moment to look at the first reason for not listening well: personal thoughts/stories/revelations relating to or in connection with the conversation at hand. We are all guilty of this one from time to time and there are reasons why this may happen more frequently or without personal recognition. One reason why people may turn internally and away from the conversation is that they are anxious or nervous about showing up for the conversation in just the right way. Have you ever felt like you needed to form your answer or response internally before you could speak? While this might feel like a good way to set your conversation up for success and share your point of view, it takes away from your ability to fully engage with the person speaking.  

Similarly, when you’re listening and are reminded of a great point or idea and you immediately interject the conversation abruptly, it can leave the person speaking with the impression you aren’t listening, or don’t care to hear their full point of view. You aren’t intentionally wanting to make them feel this way, but by not practicing better listening habits you are essentially saying, “What I have to say is more important than what you’re sharing with me now.”

Listening can feel less of a priority when we want to share our perspective or insight. We become quicker to voice our opinions, perspectives, or stance and unintentionally stop paying attention to the person speaking to us.

If you’re anything like my clients who come to me wanting to become a better listener, you’re a caring and kind person and you want to strengthen your communication skills with your partner, friends, family, or others in order to encourage growth and happiness in your most important relationships. 

So, how do you know if this is an area of strength or one of weakness? And how can you become a better listener? Read on for more!

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Intentionally Listen

Listening is a skill that takes practice. You’re not going to go into one coaching session and walk out as a professional listener. You’re going to have to put in the work. In my work with therapy and coaching clients, how to listen effectively feels challenging for many. [Curious if you're a bad listener? Here are 10 Signs You're a Bad Listener.]

What I think we miss early in life is how to be aware of what is going on in our present moment, both internally and externally. We have this amazing brain that sets us apart from everything else, but sometimes, we can be so stuck in our heads that we find ourselves working mostly on autopilot. We may be focusing on something we did or trying to prepare for something we need to get done and because of this, we can forget to intentionally ground ourselves in the present. 

So, how does this affect our listening skills?

If we are unaware of our emotional state, are stuck in our head preparing what to say, or ruminating on something that happened yesterday, it becomes pretty difficult to be present when someone is speaking to us. Our mind’s ability to multitask, which is something we need, can actually make listening less effective because of these distractions. We learn to communicate from those around us and through that communication, we learn to listen.

To truly listen, understand, and show that we are present in the conversation, we need to be playing a more active role. Intentionally listening to empathize, validate, and understand is not passive, it takes effort, it takes active listening. 

The encouraging part of all of this is that you can actually start active listening on your own today. By intentionally practicing your listening skills, you can gradually build better listening habits. Here are a few key skills you can implement today to begin actively and mindfully listening:

Active Listening Key Skills

Pay Attention – Give the speaker your undivided attention. Maintain eye contact, notice when a distracting thought pops up, acknowledge it, and direct your attention back to the speaker, listen to understand – not respond, and pay attention to body language.

Show That You’re Listening – Use your body language to show that you are engaged in what they are saying. Nod your head occasionally, smile, or use other facial expressions, verbal affirmations for the speaker to continue like “yes” or “uh-huh.”

Reflect, Clarify, and Summarize – Your role as the listener is to understand. Our own perspective can often filter what we hear, so in order to put those aside and get to what the speaker is really saying reflect on what is being said and ask clarifying questions. 

  • Reflections may sound like: “So, what I’m hearing you say is…” or “It sounds like you’re saying…”
  • Clarifications may sound like: “Did I hear that right?” or  “What did you mean when you said that?”
  • Summarize what you are hearing every so often to make sure you’re understanding. There is a lot happening in just a few minutes of conversation!

Defer Judgement – Interrupting can frustrate the speaker, and ultimately, it impacts how well you understand their perspective. Allow the speaker to finish before asking questions. 

Respond Appropriately – Be open and honest in your response and share your opinions respectfully. 

Mindful Listening Key Skills

In addition to Active Listening skills, I like to consider the benefit of Mindful Listening skills. This is where that present awareness can be helpful. 

Check-In with Your Body and Mind – Prior to a conversation, check-in with your body and mind. Did you have a stressful day? Are you carrying any tension in your body? What emotions are you presently feeling? If you find that your mind is cluttered with past and future related thoughts, give yourself a chance to refocus and bring yourself back to the present. This can be done with a few deep breaths, counting to four on the in-breath, pausing, and four on the out-breath.  

Cultivate Empathy – Empathy is also an important listening skill as it lets the other person know that we not only hear them, but we are trying to feel what it might be like from their perspective. In fact, Empathy is The Key to Connection and Communication. By being empathetic, you are showing that you can set aside your own lens, perspective, and belief in order to put yourself in their shoes and understand what they might be going through. 

Periodically Check-In with Your Body and Mind – Throughout the conversation maintain that present awareness of your own inner “cues” similar to the check-in from earlier notice when thoughts, feelings, or reactions come up that might block out our ability to be present or see the other’s perspective. 

Mindful listening is a way of listening fully to the speaker without judgment, interruption, or criticism while being aware of your own internal thoughts and feelings that might get in the way of communicating effectively. When you combine active listening skills with mindful listening skills you show the speaker that you are present in that moment with them, you hear them and respect their perspective and what they have to say. 

Emotional Intelligence and Listening

Emotions are essential to communication. The speaker is conveying their perspective through their feelings as well as their words. While we listen, emotions are triggered inside of us as well. Emotional intelligence is recognizing and managing our own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. 

With awareness and management of our own emotions, we can use active and mindful listening skills more effectively. If we are not recognizing and managing our emotions, we can often react without thinking and these emotions can affect what we think and hear. Essentially, emotions can control how we react to someone speaking to us. Instead of feeling controlled by our emotions, we can use them to improve our conversations. They can become a tool to better understand the speaker and in turn, make us a better listener. 

Practice Emotional Awareness

Recognize/identify the emotions the speaker may be experiencing and the emotions we are experiencing during the conversation. This is where those active and mindful listening skills can be so helpful. Stay present, reflect, ask clarifying questions, empathize. Try to see the topic from their perspective. 

The Speaker’s Emotions: Pay attention beyond their words. What is their tone of voice? Something said enthusiastically could mean something different than the same thing spoken out of frustration. Pay attention to the tone of voice, facial expression, and body language to help understand what those words actually mean, and what emotions might be behind them. 

Our Emotions: As the speaker is speaking, we will pick up on their words, body language, and tone of voice, and emotions will be triggered inside of us. We might easily identify ones such as annoyance, joy, frustration, or excitement, but others might be harder to identify. Maybe we cannot name a specific emotion, but we feel something different. It can be easier to overlook these cues or even push them away, but they all give us important information. 

Reflect the Emotions of the Speaker

Again, we are using those reflective and mindful listening skills here. When you notice an emotion that the speaker might be experiencing that seems relevant to their story, reflect this. 

Example: “I noticed as you talked about your new position at work, you seemed a little tense or frustrated. [reflection] Why is that? [clarifying question]”

Example: “You look excited. [reflection] What’s up? [clarifying question]”

Recognize and Use Your Emotions

When a strong emotion is triggered inside of us, we want to avoid reacting without first pausing. Pause to identify the emotion you are experiencing, then use this emotional experience to ask a question directly addressing the topic that triggered the emotion.

Example: If we start to feel frustrated or defensive, use this emotion to craft a question directed at the speaker’s message that roused that emotion.

  • “That’s an interesting perspective. What led you to that view?”
  • “I haven’t heard it described that way before, can you tell me more?”

Manage Your Emotions

While listening, manage emotions that are triggered inside so that they don’t end up preventing you from understanding the speaker’s message. Managing your own emotions allows you to remain calm and open, which may help the speaker manage their emotions as well.

Managing your emotions prevents you from reacting impulsively. When reacting impulsively, we skip emotion recognition and regulation and are most likely reacting prior to fully understanding the speaker’s message. Depending on the reaction, the speaker may not continue trying to express their message or it could even lead to conflict. 

I have found that questions and reflection can really be helpful when emotions are triggered. You are redirecting your emotional energy into understanding the message more clearly. You are intentionally calming your own emotional response by turning your focus on listening carefully to better understand the speaker. 

Practice Makes Habit

Practice, practice, practice! Practicing these skills can create a habit. The way we have learned to listen is still something we have learned, so we can unlearn it too. It may take time because we have been listening to respond for so long, but it’s possible. Awareness is key. Notice how you are paying attention when someone is talking, when you are focused on your response over what someone is saying, and if you are quick to jump in with your perspective rather than listening to understand. 

Start to recognize emotions as they arise and name them, “Earlier, when my partner wasn’t responding when I was trying to get their attention, I noticed I felt tense and frustrated.” Then explore that emotion, “I wonder if it’s because it felt like they were ignoring me? Maybe that hurt my feelings and instead of being sad I got angry?”

Breaking down these listening skills into small steps can make it feel less overwhelming or intimidating and over time you will notice this practice paying off in your conversations with friends, partners, family, and colleagues. 

However, if while practicing these strategies you notice a few are really tough to learn and use, asking for help or more resources could get you over that obstacle. Emotional intelligence coaches can help coach you through the more difficult aspects of identifying emotions, regulating and managing them, and utilizing these skills in your relationships. 

So, it turns out there is so much more to listening than just hearing what another person is saying and responding to them! I hope these skills are useful in your exploration of how you listen to those around you and hope they help cultivate presence, openness, empathy, and better understanding in your relationships. 

Kara Castells, M.A., MFTC

Online marriage counseling new york florida online couples therapist

Kara Castells, M.S., MFTC is a couples counselor, life coach, and individual therapist who creates an accepting and supportive environment for you to find clarity in your personal life and relationships. She is skillful at applying systemic and evidence-based approaches to create lasting change.



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Premarital Counseling: Conversations for Commitment

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What to Know Before Marriage

Imagine you and your partner want to go on a big trip together, you know you want to do this together, but what else do you plan for? Are you going somewhere sunny and beachy? Or somewhere where you can go skiing? What does your budget look like for this trip? Do you want to go big on where you’re staying or on food and experiences? Does one of you organize the activities or do you decide on them together? 

These questions might come naturally to some, and maybe to others they’d rather point to a place on the map, throw caution to the wind, and have an adventure. They all have something in common though; they highlight beliefs and expectations we each bring into big decisions about our future and what we would like it to look like. What’s even crazier, we might not even be aware of certain expectations until you catch yourself feeling disappointed or frustrated over something that didn’t cross your mind to talk about ahead of time. 

For example, you get to your warm and sunny beach vacation and your partner DID NOT pack the sunscreen. You might think, “Why wouldn’t they think to do that, we’re going to the beach!” A question to ask yourself in this situation might be, why did you expect them to pack the sunscreen? 

We each have lenses through which we view the world that have been shaped by our own subjective experiences, messages we get from families, teachers, and society that lead us to having certain beliefs and expectations. Sometimes we can forget that and get caught thinking, “well I would’ve definitely remembered putting the sunscreen in the suitcase first because we’re going to the beach,” but our partner might not have that thought due to their unique beliefs and expectations. 


Premarital Counseling: The Road Map to a Successful Marriage


Expectations, both conscious and unconscious ones, can be really important to discuss ahead of making big life decisions, like deciding to get married. This is where premarital counseling can be so helpful. Talking about these expectations ahead of time, before you find yourself wondering why the heck your partner didn’t pack the sunscreen, can be helpful in understanding more of what to expect from each other in marriage. 

What is helpful to me when working with premarital couples is having a sort of roadmap ahead of starting our work together, another way I’ve described this to couples is “let’s do a relationship check-up”. Maybe you’re a really strong couple, or maybe there are areas you are both struggling, a check-up can be helpful in both scenarios. 

In order to stay healthy, we don’t just go to the doctor when something is really hurting or broken, we go in annually to make sure everything is working the way it should. This is how I like to view premarital counseling as well as counseling or therapy in general. 


Topics of Discussion in Premarital Counseling


So, what does this “check-up” look like? We can assess common areas that couples may have mismatched expectations, such as managing family relationships, finances, sex, deciding whether or not you want to have children, etc. These are great topics to go into to give each partner time to describe their beliefs, expectations, and meanings of these topics in their future together. 

A few examples of questions that might come up are shown below.

Finance Examples

  • When we get married will we merge our finances? What will that look like – will we share access to all accounts or just some?
  • What are beliefs about money that impact the way you spend, save, or invest? Where did those beliefs come from?
  • What are our shared financial goals? How can we come up with a plan to reach those goals? What does that timeline look like?

Extended Family Examples

  • How involved do we want each side of our families to have in our decisions as a couple? How involved would we want them in the lives of our children if/when we have them?
  • What boundaries already exist between your partner and their family, are they healthy? 
  • What is the meaning of family to each of you? Is it different? How might that impact your expectations around spending time with or making decisions about family in the future?

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Exploring Relationship Strengths and Weaknesses in Premarital Counseling


In addition to exploring expectations and beliefs around topics such as these, part of our “check-up” is assessing areas of strength and weakness in your relationship. 

Maybe you both have an incredible friendship and agree on a lot of things, but a disagreement ends in yelling, defensiveness, and anger. Or maybe you find it hard to talk openly about certain topics and might need more tools to feel confident in having that conversation and feeling heard by your partner

These seemingly “small” things might feel like things you’ll both just figure out in time or things that don’t matter as much because you both really love each other, but why not have a place to explore them with someone who could give you tools, help you both gain clarity, or even just share a different perspective?

Things we might “check-up” on in your relationship include:

  • What does your friendship look like? How well do you know and attempt to learn about your partner’s world?
  • What does trust and commitment look like in your relationship?
  • How are you both supporting each other's goals and dreams?
  • How is your communication with your partner? Do you feel heard and validated? Are there often misunderstandings?
  • Do you see your partner in a generally positive way? Or do you catch yourself seeing your partner more negatively, maybe in the form of past mistakes?
  • What does conflict look like in your relationship? What does resolution look like?
  • Are there past hurts from previous relationships that keep coming up in your relationship and causing stress or conflict?

As you’re reading this you might be thinking, “My partner and I have such a strong relationship and we’ve talked about so much ahead of this decision, I don’t think we need to consider something like this.” Maybe you’re right and your relationship is super solid, AND I bet there are still things you might uncover in this work that you didn’t even know to ask or didn’t know about your partner. 


Preparing to Go the Distance


I think of premarital counseling more like training ahead of a race. Maybe I feel confident that I’ve taken the necessary steps in preparing, but I haven’t run this race before so I might get some training tips from someone who coaches or who has expertise in how to get me ready for something like this. Regardless of the state of your relationship, premarital counseling or this relationship check-up, can help celebrate and bolster the strengths you already possess, give assistance and tools in areas of weakness, and give space to conversations that might have layers of beliefs, expectations, and meanings associated with them. 


What to Expect in Premarital Counseling


A couple of questions might still be coming up for you as you read this. I think a common question I hear when a couple starts premarital counseling is, “so how long do you think this will take?” and I love this question. I think it really depends on the couple. 

Generally, going through this work together can take time, so I like to understand what expectations my clients are coming into premarital counseling with. Are there time or budget restrictions that I should be aware of that might impact how long we are able to work together? 

I like to start with an assessment of the relationship that covers a lot of the topics and areas mentioned above, to have an idea of what we’re needing to make space for in session. Then I bring this to the couple and highlight areas of strength and areas and topics that might need further discussion. If there are restrictions on our time together, maybe we prioritize the most important topics or areas for you, and I get you connected to supplementary resources that could help outside of session for the topics we don’t get to. It’s possible to spend a few sessions on a topic, or discuss it in one, it all depends on what you both need out of it and if there is clarity at the conclusion of that topic. 

Another question that typically comes up after this is, “well what if we work together and find that we have some deeper issues going on somewhere in the relationship?” There is no shame in this. You’re actually in the perfect place to process deeper issues if they do come up. 

If we assess areas of strengths and areas for growth, and during our work, come across something that needs more time and processing, we can work together to reexamine our goals to accommodate what is most pressing at that time. 

Premarital counseling is beneficial to any couple wanting to get a relationship check-up ahead of a big decision such as marriage. It doesn’t have to be reserved for religion or couples that are struggling, it can be a helpful space for assessing strengths and weaknesses and identifying topics and expectations that could use more discussion. 

Wishing you all the best,

Dr. Rachel Merlin, DMFT, LMFT, M.S.Ed.

Kara Castells M.S., MFTC is a couples counselor, life coach, and individual therapist who creates an accepting and supportive environment for you to find clarity in your personal life and relationships. She is skillful at applying systemic and evidence-based approaches to create lasting change. Kara can help you and your partner prepare for a happy life together through premarital counseling and couples therapy. 

Real Help For Your Relationship

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