Effective Listening for Better Relationships – Part One

Communication Requires One Person to Talk and Equally Important, the Other to Listen

Listening is the other half of communication. Our first thought, when we think about communication, may be to consider the speaker’s ability to convey ideas effectively. What we often forget is that without a listener the speaker may as well be talking to the wind. Just as effective speaking is an acquired skill, so is good listening. Some do it better than others. But all of us can learn to enrich our own listening skills.

Listening to the Voice in Your Head

Think about what happens when you hear someone speak. You pay attention to the person’s appearance, to activity in the background, to what you did earlier in the day, to a conversation you had with someone else, or to your counterargument, and how you will present it. Your mind flits from topic to topic as you take in only fragments of what the other person says. It seems a wonder that people understand each other as well as they do.

The speaker conveys only a portion of the real meaning of an intended idea – and the listener may pick up on only a fraction of the information transmitted. We think we know what the speaker was trying to say, but often we are absolutely wrong. (Have you ever played the “rumor game” in a large circle? The first person whispers a message to the next in line, and this message goes from person to person until it gets to the end of the circle. Something like “two kittens were playing with a ball of string” easily mutates into “the lion sleeps tonight” as the message is relayed around the circle.)

Listening is Loving

Listening is itself a form of communication. Listening to another person sends the message that you care and that you are truly interested in the other person’s ideas. Without the ability to listen effectively, true intimacy and mutual respect between partners, two of the hallmarks of a successful relationship, are not even possible. When you fail to listen to your partner, you may impart the message that he or she doesn’t count, that you are the one with all the knowledge, and that you lack respect for your partner. These are hardly the qualities of a thriving and mutually beneficial relationship.

Effective listening means that you want to learn from, enjoy, care about, trust, understand, and nurture your partner. A good listener sends the message that he or she is interested in the world and to new ideas and life experiences. To listen well is one way to show that you can love well.

Learn to Listen Effectively

The first step in mastering good listening skills is to become aware of why listening is important in your life and your relationships. And the next step is simply to start doing it. Practice listening whenever you can.

Here are a few rules to start the process:

  • Never interrupt when the other person is speaking. Allow the speaker to complete his or her thought.
  • Eliminate distractions – put your book down or turn off the television.
  • Maintain eye contact while the other person is speaking.
  • Pull your chair closer and lean toward the speaker.
  • Keep your posture open – directly face your partner and leave your arms and legs uncrossed.
  • Give verbal and nonverbal responses to what the speaker is saying – “yes, I see,” nod your head, smile, or frown when it’s appropriate.

Attentive Listening

Listening is more than passively remaining silent while the other person talks. It is the other half of an active collaborative process. The first level is attentive listening. In this mode we take the position that we are genuinely interested in the other person’s point of view. We accept the fact that we have something to learn from the interaction. However, this level of listening has its limitations. Even though we are attentive, we still make assumptions about the message and we tend to fill in the gaps with whatever it is that we want to hear. At this level we don’t check to see if what we have heard is what the speaker really meant to say.

Active Listening

The second, and more powerful, level is active listening (or reflective listening). This assumes that communication is truly a two-way process that involves giving feedback. Active listening requires that the listener paraphrase, clarify, and give feedback.

Paraphrasing is the most important element of active listening. When your partner says something of interest, you should restate in your own words what you heard your partner say. You can provide a lead-in, such as “What I’m hearing you say is that…” or “So if I’m correct, you are telling me that….” Paraphrasing allows us to correct misconceptions as they occur, gives us the chance to resist obstacles to good listening, keeps both you and your partner from becoming defensive or feeling misunderstood, and helps us to remember what was said.

Clarifying provides more depth to the listening process than merely paraphrasing. Your purpose in clarifying is to ask questions about what the speaker is saying in a helpful and empathic way. “So how did you feel when I cut you off?” “What did you think when I said I didn’t want to take that trip?” Clarifying does not involve belittling, manipulating or coercing your partner in any way. Its purpose is to tell the speaker that you are engaged in listening and you want to know more about specific points.

Giving feedback involves providing your personal thoughts on what your partner has said, without succumbing to the obstacles to good listening. You calmly state your own opinions, thoughts and feelings. This gives your partner yet another chance to see if you got the message and to check out the accuracy of his or her communication. And perhaps your partner can gain a new or broader perspective on what was talked about.

Listening is a skill most of us never learned as a school subject. We assume that listening is something that comes naturally. Too often we listen for what we need to hear rather than to what the other person truly intends to say. Our inability to listen is often at the root of our interpersonal conflicts. Good relationships are characterized by good listening skills on the part of both partners. When we listen well to someone we not only show that person respect and care, but we show that we are open to the world around us.

Special Announcement:

We are putting the finishing touches on a major upgrade to our Straight From the Heart e-book by adding six audios totally approximately eight hours of in-depth teaching and coaching from a teletraining we completed. We are excited about making this level of training available. We expect to announce its release in next week’s blog post!

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