How to improve communication skills in relationships: Active Listening
“Did you even hear what I just said?!” “Of course I did! What do you think I’ve been doing for last 15 minutes?” Sound familiar? You are not alone. A lot of couples start their arguments this way. We are always feeling “unheard” and “ignored” by our partners. Why is that? Ask yourself this question. Do you really listen to your partner when he/she is talking to you? Or do you get distracted thinking about how you will respond? Or maybe you half listen, trying to do something else at the same time (e.g. playing with your phone). Rumi said, “There is a voice that doesn’t require words. Listen.” He was right and he is still right after more than 700 years later. Listening is a truly the loudest voice there is in communicating your love to your partner. It will clearly send out a message to your partner about how much you love them and how important they are to you. So how do you “actively listen?” Let’s break it down.
1. Be present and pay attention.
When you are ready to “Actively Listen,” sit in front of your partner, face them directly, and lean in. This way, you can make a good eye contact with your partner. And you can express, with your whole body, that you are very interested in them and in what they have to say. Next thing you need to do is being present, in the moment. And yes, that means you need to unglue your hands from your phone, close the book you were reading, and pause the Netflix you’ve been binge watching. -I promise, they will still be there when you come back. Now you can provide your partner the undivided attention by being truly present with them. You can also pay attention to your partner’s the body language. Does it match with what he/she is verbalizing to you? Listen to what he/she is not saying.
2. Repeat what’s been said to clarify, and reflect.
Periodically summarize your understanding of shared content to your partner. This will show your partner that you are really paying attention and want to understand him/her better. Also, reflect your partner’s words in terms of feelings: “This must be devastating to you.” “That sounds overwhelming!” And this is how the conversation would look, when you repeat, and reflect effectively. Julie: I am so sad that my boss left the company! I really liked her and now I don’t even know who’s going to be my boss. Tom: I heard you say that you are sad because the boss you really liked left the company. And not knowing who will replace her must make you feel nervous and worried. Did I get that right? Julie: Yeah, I am feeling very nervous and worried about it. Sometimes you are not going to get 100% (okay, most of the times). But all you need to do is add the details you missed or correct what you’ve got wrong and repeat the revised version back to him/her. That will give them another chance to help you understand what they are trying to communicate.
3. Hold on to your lovely feedback (for now).
Your role is to listen here not to give an advice. Often, all your partner wants, in the moment of distress, is their partner being there, being present to support them. You might have tons of great ideas to solve your partner’s problem. But this is not the time for you to interrupt your partner and show them how they can fix the issue. It is time for you to listen and empathize. “I can imagine how that must feel.” “It’s going to be okay, I’m here.”
4. Validate your partner’s feelings.
This is my favorite tool in communication! Validation is acknowledging and accepting one’s emotional experience in a given situation as understandable and important. You don’t have to condone the behavior or agree with their thoughts. You are simply allowing them to feel what they feel, without any judgment. “It sounds like that comment your friend made really hurt your feelings.” “That really sucks.” “You’ve had a rough day!” It is believed that people who can actively and empathetically listen are great at initiating and maintaining conversations. So what that really means is that improving your active listening skills will not only improve your relationships, it will also make you a better conversationalist overall. So there are so much to gain here! I will end with another quote I really like. “If you want to be a good conversationalist, be a good listener. To be interesting, be interested.” Dale Carnegie
Liz Wee, LMFT, ATR
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