Listening Skills in Relationships
Improve your relationship with listening skills
One common myth about couples’ therapy is that partners only seek it out when their marriage or long-term relationship is in serious trouble. However, some of the couples I see are simply looking for ways to break negative patterns that have developed in their marriage. One of the key ways to create more positive interactions in relationships is by working on your listening skills.
Pause for a moment and think about the last argument between you and your partner. Ask yourself these questions:
- Did I feel heard during and after that argument? Did my partner?
- Do I have a clear sense of how my partner felt about this issue?
- Did we reach an adequate conclusion to the conflict?
- Is this argument likely to come up again?
- If it does come up again, how can I approach it differently?
That last question is the one we will address here. If you are tired of the same argument returning time and time again, that’s a sign that one or both of you isn’t feeling heard. You might agree to disagree, or you just move on because you’re tired of arguing, but the issue rears its head because it was never really resolved.
So, next time, try something new. Whether it’s an old argument or a new one, better listening skills can help you achieve a deeper understanding of your partner (and vice versa). Ideally, it will also help you reach more satisfactory conclusions to any conflicts that do arise.
If you would like to be a better listener, try these steps:
Too often in arguments, or in any discussion, we want to be sure that our side is heard. So, we jump in as soon as the other person takes a breath. With your partner, especially, that can leave him or her feeling frustrated and even angrier because he or she can’t be sure you actually heard a word.
So, I challenge you to pause first. If your partner is approaching you with a strong emotional reaction to something, stop and listen to his or her words – and pay close attention to body language. A short pause reminds you to really listen to your partner and not jump straight into debate mode. A subtle deep breath (a loud dramatic one could have the opposite effect!) on your end while you pause can also help alleviate some tension in your body to help you stay calm and be more receptive to what your partner is saying.
Now is a good time to turn off the TV or radio, set down your phone, close the magazine, and to tune into your partner. Eliminating distractions will help you be a better listener.
To show that you have actually heard your partner, paraphrase what he or she said. “I hear you saying… Is that right?”
This step shows your partner that you are actively listening to them, and it also gives him or her a chance to clarify their point of view. Summarizing their words doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with them. The goal here is to reach a better understanding of your partner’s perspective and to demonstrate to them that you understand.
Encourage and ask for details
As your partner speaks, continue to resist the urge to jump in with your own viewpoint; there will be time for that later. Give your partner a chance to complete his or her thought by offering short prompts to encourage more detail (“I could see how you’d see it that way” “That makes sense” “I hear that”). It is important that these prompts be done in a calm supportive tone. You can also ask questions to encourage your partner to expand on the thought (“What would have been a more helpful response from me?” “How can we work together to avoid these sorts of issues moving forward? “Can you give me other examples?”).
Again, you are trying to get a full picture of what caused your partner’s distress. As you encourage your partner to fill in details, remember to pause along the away. Pauses, and silence, can give your partner the space to process the emotion and consider your questions.
Remember that good listening can’t be a rush job: Be patient.
A key aspect to conflict resolution in relationships is addressing the emotion behind the argument. Moving beyond the simple facts and the “he said, she said” debates allows you to connect more deeply with your partner. Your goal is deeper understanding and a stronger bond with your partner, and emotion is at the heart of that.
During an argument, your partner might not even be aware of which emotion is driving the conflict (perhaps they think they are angry but they are really scared). So, it can help to specifically focus on emotions instead of the content de jour. It is important in this step to acknowledge as authentically as possible how they are feeling if they state it explicitly, or how you think they are feeling if they don’t explicitly state it, and to help them explore other layers of their feelings (I see that you are very angry about this. You probably are disappointed, too. Are you?”) Again, you might need to pause to allow your partner time to process and respond.
When tensions are high between couples, it can leave one or both of you feeling vulnerable and anxious. During an argument, it can be helpful to offer reassurance. Saying something as simple as “I know it was hard for you to bring up this issue; thank you for telling me” can reassure your partner that you want a positive conclusion to the conflict. It is also helpful, even if you don’t fully agree with them, to find some degree of truth in what they are saying (“I can see how my not checking in with you when I arrived at my destination the other day could be perceived as if I didn’t care about you” or “I can see how given my past flirtation with so and so, you felt threatened when I responded to her post on facebook). Note that you are not admitting fault here per se, but rather reassuring your partner that you hear what they are saying and that you care about what they are saying; that you care about them.
Moving out of debate mode and into listening mode takes practice. Some people can feel uncomfortable because they want to defend themselves or tell their side of the story immediately, but there is time for that later. After your partner feels heard, respected, and cared for, then they will be more receptive to understanding your side of the story, but not before. If your partner feels truly heard, that can lead to a much more productive conversation – and a deeper, more connected relationship.
It takes a shift in mindset to become a better listener in relationships, but the reward can be a more open and loving relationship with your partner.
If you would like to learn more about couples therapy and creating a deeper, more connected relationship, please contact me for a free 50 minute in person consultation. I am a Denver therapist located near the Cherry Creek, Washington Park, Virginia Village, Lowry, Montclair, Hilltop and Congress Park neighborhoods.