The art of listening

4 August 2016

We tend to think of communication as just being about expressing ourselves, but that’s really only half of it. It’s also just as important to know how to listen.

Being able to listen to your partner effectively means you’re able to better understand their perspective. It means you’re more likely to have constructive conversations where you feel your point of view is being considered. So many misunderstandings in relationships are caused by one or both partners feeling like they’re not being heard. Learning how to be a good listener can do so much to address this.

The challenge, of course, is that it’s easy to pick up bad listening habits, especially if you’ve never thought about how to be a good listener in much detail. Here are some of the most common:

So how do you change the way you listen?

Choose the right place and time. Finding a time and a place where you’re both relaxed can be a crucial part of communicating effectively. If you’re shouting to each other from different rooms, for instance, you’re unlikely to properly hear what each other is saying. It’s also really hard to listen to someone when there’s lots of background noise or other things competing for your attention.

Use your body language. Facing towards someone when they’re talking means you’re much more likely to focus on what they’re saying than if you’re facing away or looking at something else. And if they’re upset, try sitting close to them, putting an arm around them and – most importantly – maintaining eye contact.

Listen intelligently. Sometimes, people joke about something because it’s easier than saying it openly. Or they might imply something, but not quite say it outright. They may even say the complete opposite of what they mean. Listening intelligently means looking out for the meaning behind your partners’ words – hearing not just what they’re saying, but what they’re trying to say. Asking open ended questions like ‘what was that like for you?’ is great way to open up the conversation further, as it will give your partner the chance to explain things in their own words, rather than having words put in their mouth.

Try first to understand, and then be understood. It can be easy to focus more on what you want to say than on trying to understand your partner’s point of view. But the risk with this is you simply end up waiting for your turn to talk, rather than actually listening. Before you start talking, commit to putting your views and agenda aside.

Avoid judgement. Communication flourishes when there’s trust, but flounders when there’s judgement or criticism. Being able to listen without making judgemental statements or putting each other down is crucial to building and maintaining trust. Even if what your partner is saying doesn’t make sense to you, butting in or picking holes is only likely to hurt them, not convince them. However much you’re tempted to insist you’re the one in the right or snap at your partner because you feel they’re being unreasonable, try to listen calmly, rather than give in to your emotions.

Show you’re listening to what your partner is saying. That doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing all the time, but rather making it clear you’ve understood them – or that you’re trying to understand them. For this, you can employ some specific techniques. These include:

  • Mirroring what your partner has said. Repeat it back to them: ‘It sounds like you’re saying… and that has made you feel….’. That way, you’re making it clear you’re focussed on them, not on yourself.
  • Clarify things. Make sure you’re getting it right, rather than assuming. The easiest way to do this is simply by checking: ‘Am I understanding you correctly?’
  • Empathise. Sentences like ‘that must make you feel…’ or ‘it makes sense that given what happened that you would feel like that’ or ‘I can imagine that would be really hard’ can be really useful in showing your partner you’re not only listening, but putting yourself in their shoes.It’s worth bearing in mind that listening is a skill, and it takes time to learn. Some of the above won’t necessarily feel that natural at first, and it will require persistence and practice before it becomes a habitat. However, if you stick with it, you’ll find it does get easier.

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