Listening is a critical element of communication and often a real challenge to family members, partners in a relationship or even friends. In the early days of a relationship, we hang on every word the other person has to say. But as familiarity and daily life take over, real listening is often sacrificed.
Partners may half-listen to what the other one is saying or tune out altogether. They make assumptions about the speaker’s message (what they expect to hear) and listen just enough to know that it’s time to speak or nod or go back to what they were doing in the first place.
It’s not easy to listen fully. The environment interferes, along with unrelated thoughts about the speaker and about daily life. Perhaps the speaker is distractingly attractive, or isn’t as articulate as he or she might be, or misses an important point that the listener is eager to mention. Each of those possibilities takes the listener’s attention away from the speaker’s words.
Listening is a sort of glue in a relationship; when good listening is lost, the pieces of the relationship no longer fit together as tightly as they once did. True listening is a sign of interest, respect, caring and intimacy. Failure to listen conveys the opposite message: a lack of interest, respect, understanding and even love.
So it follows that improved listening is a valuable tool to build a stronger relationship. Every single conversation should be included in the effort, whether you’re on the phone, in the car or sitting next to each other on the couch. Here are a few suggestions:
- Face the speaker. Maintain eye contact. Lean toward the speaker slightly.
- Reduce distractions. Set aside the newspaper or knitting, turn down the music and turn off the television and other electronic devices. Even a muted TV is a powerful distraction.
- Don’t interrupt. No matter how urgently you feel the need to react, let the speaker finish his or her thought. Be patient. You may forget what you wanted to say; that’s okay. Really listening can lead to a deeper conversation.
- Nodding, smiling, laughing, frowning and verbalizing (for example, “I see” or “mm-hmm”) show the speaker that you’re tuned in to their words.
- When the speaker has finished speaking, rephrase key points of what they said. For example, “I think I understand. You are telling me…” and then mention an important point in your own words. The purpose of paraphrasing is not simply to parrot back what your partner has said, but to create communication and dialogue. It also improves remembering!
- Where paraphrasing looks at the substance of your partner’s words, clarifying gets at some of the underlying feelings. So, for example, after your partner explains how important it is that you call when you’re going to be late, you might ask the clarifying question, “How did you feel when it got to be 11pm and I hadn’t called?”
- Ask questions. If the speaker seems hesitant or stalled, ask a related question to encourage them to continue.
- Offer feedback. Without being argumentative or belittling, share your thoughts and opinions about what your partner said. It’s okay to disagree. But keep your disagreement respectful, open-minded and receptive to each person’s right to an opinion.
Obstacles to real listening
- Lack of trust
- Lack of respect
- Judging or prejudice
- Listening for what you expect or want to hear
- Rehearsing what you will say next
- Looking for hidden messages
- Acting like you’re listening just to be nice
- Deflecting the conversation to a more comfortable subject
Physical/environmental obstacles, such as noise, use of alcohol, hearing impairment, language differences or speech impediment, can also contribute to poor communication.
Make every effort to create a an atmosphere conducive to communication – one that works best for both parties.
Listening is a skill that children learn from the earliest age. The more carefully adults listen to children, the better listeners children will be as they grow up.
Listening skills can be dramatically improved with practice. A relationship counselor can offer dynamic listening exercises to help both partners gain more from every conversation – and from their relationship.
For a free phone consult, call Dr. Fibus at 818.395.2831.