Are You A Good Listener?
Listening with intent and genuine interest is a skill that, unfortunately, most of us are not born with. This skill is what ultimately builds connection and develops a reassurance in our relationships (romantic, platonic, and professional!). Did you know that most toxic relationship issues (no matter what the topic) come from a disconnect in communication? It’s true! As a Couples Counselor, I have worked with many couples who are going through these exact same disconnects in their relationship, and I want to offer you practical listening skills that you can practice to become a better, more effective listener.
The wonderful thing about diversity is that we all come from unique backgrounds. These different backgrounds make up different cultures, values, and ideals we hold as individuals. However, when you bring two (often very different) people together, there sometimes is a sort of tug-of-war into whose values are more authentic and which ideals the relationship will hold. Since we all have distinct and very personal views of “right and wrong”, this makes hearing other opinions often challenging.
Listening to your partner without judgment is essential to building connection, rebuilding trust, and fostering an environment where a relationship can grow and thrive! We all want to be heard, and when we aren’t we feel as though our emotions and needs are often overlooked. Not listening to your partner can result in power struggles, negative behaviors, resentment, and ultimately…separation.
You don’t want to wait for things to “just get better” in your relationship, because they won’t without intentionally taking the steps for improvement (both personally and as a couple). The good news is, you can start today! Here are six practical and mindful ways that you can improve your listening skills while making yourself a more responsive and connected partner.
TAKE BEING RIGHT OR WRONG OUT OF THE EQUATION
Your values are no better or worse than your partner’s values. An active listener will work hard not to judge his or her partner’s emotions.
Needs and emotions are never “correct” or “incorrect” they simply just are. Discussions that lead to black and white thinking, right or wrong, are usually about asserting control. Control then leads to blame, anger, and resentment, not connection. A partner who feels judged or is “wrong” in an argument will feel invalidated and unheard. A listener’s job is to listen, not judge. If a listener intends to hear and not control, then the result is better connection.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO AGREE ALL THE TIME
Our culture has taught us the fallacy that a healthy couple never disagrees or gets into arguments. In reality, many healthy couples disagree about important topics regarding their relationship, and no couple will ever agree entirely about everything.
Authentic listening comes from hearing and validating ideas you don’t agree with, as this shows respect for your partner. The goal is to listen and accept, and not necessarily agree, which can lead to the compromise that’s needed for couples to navigate difficult times and topics together.
REMOVE DISTRACTIONS FROM THE CONVERSATION
For most of us, this means putting the cell phone down, turning off the TV, or walking away from the computer screen. Non-verbal cues are incredibly important as a listener. If you are distracted and disengaged, then clearly you cannot validate your partner (who may feel they’re talking to a figurative wall).
To get even more real with your partner, use non-verbal cues such as touch, eye contact, and body language(as well as the verbal cue of vocal tone). These cues are what babies learn in their early development to feel safe. These same cues will calm an adult’s limbic system – allowing more safety in sharing emotions and needs. Your non-verbal cues of acceptance and security are not just a crucial listening skill, but also a critical skill for building any relationship.
CONTINUALLY PRACTICE EMPATHY
Empathy is being able to understand another person’s experience, and it's the opposite of judgment. Your partner’s emotions and needs are real and often come from painful, deep experiences. Just as you have your own needs and emotions based off of your experiences, so does your partner.
Try putting yourself in your partner’s shoes to feel and understand their pain, or access your pain and examine how you’ve dealt with it. Everyone at some point will experience a difficult situation or circumstance, your partner included, and showing empathy and understanding will allow for more in-depth conversations and connection between the two of you.
LISTEN FULLY BEFORE FORMULATING A RESPONSE
Few behaviors invalidate more quickly than interrupting. Interrupting usually involves fear or a lack of emotional safety on the listener’s part. This behavior, however, will cause your partner to believe that you feel your opinion has more validity than theirs. Try not to rehearse a response in your head while your partner is sharing, as that disengages you from empathy and feeling what your partner is trying to share with you. Let the conversation happen organically and without distraction or interruption of preplanned responses (that could ultimately cause more pain than healing).
VALIDATE YOUR PARTNER
Many of my clients in couple’s counseling have revealed to me that feeling unheard is one of their biggest triggers to pain and anger. So how do you show your partner that you genuinely have heard their emotions and needs?
One way that has been proven to be effective is to repeat (in your own words) what you think you heard your partner say to you, and to ask if you heard them correctly. Be careful not to infer your interpretations into what your partner said, as those may be incorrect and invalidating – simply repeat what you heard. If you don’t get everything, that’s okay! You can ask your partner to repeat what you may have missed. This is even more effective when using your non-verbal cues for safety.
IT TAKES PRACTICE…
Listening can be a difficult skill to learn, and you won’t perfect this skill in just one conversation. If you continue to practice these six steps to improve your listening skills you will see improvement overtime (and it will get easier and more natural too!).
Self-care and general happiness are also tied to helping with the development of listening skills, as well as therapeutic techniques such as thought stopping and grounding activities. However, those who have suffered from trauma may have difficulty accessing these skills, and individual therapy to process and heal from the trauma may be needed to listen safely and with compassion. It’s true, listening can be difficult, but the rewards of being able to do so are numerous: clarity, understanding, emotional honesty, and better connection. You have the power to make changes with your listening skills and to show your partner that you can take that next step and truly hear them with empathy and understanding!
All the best,
Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC
Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC is a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach who helps people create deeper relationships, heal from difficult life experiences, and increase their confidence. His warm, non-judgmental approach makes it safe to discover new things about yourself, and take positive action to change your life.