Effective Listening for Better Relationships – Part Two



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.

Obstacles to Good Listening

Real listening is a skill that takes practice and an honest look into how you deal with the world. If you tend to take a distrustful or combative stance toward other people most of the time, it may be hard to engage in healthy and open listening.

The same holds true if you need to please others or form dependent relationships with other people much of the time – it becomes hard to truly hear what they are trying to say…and you will hear only what you need to hear.

Take a look at some of the common obstacles to active listening that typically interfere with healthy communication. Learn to recognize them when they are happening. And remember that obstacles can usually be removed.

Being Judgmental: When you have already made a negative judgment about someone, you will stop listening openly to what they have to say. You may listen only to gather evidence that supports your negative opinion of the other person. Unfortunately, if you are not able to listen to the totality of what the person is saying, you will stay locked into your negative opinion.

Rehearsing: Your mind actively creates your argument against the speaker’s point of view as it is being presented. This implies that you have your own established opinions and that you are closed to what the other has to say.

Filtering: You will hear some things that the other person talks about, but not everything. There may be some topics, like the speaker’s anger toward you, which you simply block out because you aren’t as ready to deal with them as the other person might be. Filtering may be helpful when it is used to lessen the impact of bringing up an avoided topic, but continuing it for long usually means that it is best to examine the meaning behind your need to shut out some of the information.

Advising: Sometimes people just need to be heard. We don’t have to fix every problem the other person talks about. Giving advice instead of just listening may make us feel needed, or it may be a way of distancing ourselves from hearing the other’s true feelings. To tell someone else how they should feel or behave can be a way of belittling them or telling them that they are not to be trusted. Unless advice is asked for, it may be best not to give it.

Mind Reading: You may disregard what your partner is saying and try to figure out what he or she is really trying to say. You are acting like an expert on your partner’s feelings, but this deprives your partner of the ability to communicate freely and with candor – and for you to understand your partner’s stated point of view.

Pleasing: You are so concerned about being nice, keeping the peace, and placating that you’ll jump in to agree just to keep everything happy and smooth. It may be helpful to look into why you feel compelled to do this and what it might mean for your relationship. Again, the desire to please prevents you from hearing what your partner really needs to say.

Deflecting: Whenever a certain topic is brought up that you feel uncomfortable with, you redirect the conversation to something else. You’ll tell a joke or change the subject, even if the topic is of genuine concern to your partner.

A Listening Exercise for Couples

Reciprocal listening is a powerful tool for couples who need to improve their communication. Couples who try this may become aware of how limited their communication has been in the past. They also learn an effective technique, which can increase the respect, trust, and intimacy of their relationship. This exercise may seem structured and perhaps contrived at first, but stay with it. The rewards can be immense.

The couple decides on a minor disagreement that they need to talk about. Each partner takes turns being either the speaker or the listener. The speaker has five minutes to speak without interruption. As the speaker, talk about the problem as you see it. Present your argument briefly and stick to the point. Be sure to use “I statements” to present your views and don’t place the blame on your partner (that is, just talk about how you feel about the conflict without putting your partner in a defensive position).

After five minutes your partner (the listener) will verbally summarize what he or she has heard. This allows the speaker to let the listener know if anything has been left out or if it has been misinterpreted. Keep going until the speaker feels that the point has been completely heard.

As the listener, pay close attention to what is being said and try to attune yourself to your partner’s needs. When you summarize what your partner has said, make sure you don’t disagree, argue, or criticize. Just repeat what you have heard.

Now switch positions. The speaker becomes the listener and the listener, the speaker. Follow the same procedures until the new speaker feels satisfied that his or her position has been understood. It is important to avoid letting this exercise turn into an argument. Because this is such a powerful way of learning to listen and to communicate better, many people prefer to try it with a therapist present, at least for the first few attempts.

Heart to Heart Talks

You can take this exercise even deeper by using Heart to Heart Talks in which the listener, rather than paraphrasing back what they heard the speaker say, simply responds with a neutral comment, such as “Thank you” or “I understand”, or if they didn’t understand, says “I didn’t understand that, can you please say it in another way?”

There are four kinds of Heart to Heart Talks; Discovery, Clearing, Nurturing and Affirming. Heart to Heart Talks begin with the speaker using a lead in phrase or sentence fragment, such as “Something that’s important to me in relationships is . . .”, and completing the sentence with whatever comes to mind. The speaker continues for a couple of minutes with the listener simply responding as indicated above. Then they switch and the new speaker uses the same lead in phrase.

Unlike reciprocal listening, Heart to Heart Talks teaches the listener how to listen with a quiet mind. The listener is really tuned into the speaker, listening to what they are really saying, rather than listening to the voice in the listener’s head.

Heart to Heart Talks are one of the most powerful tools available for learning how to listen deeply without distraction. This kind of listening has a profound effect on the speaker who may have the experience of truly being heard for the very first time.

Listen to the Children

Children need to be heard. Listening to children gives them the feeling that they count, that they matter. They can draw on the strength and experience of an adult whom they trust – and they trust those who give them stable and consistent attention. It is during childhood that they develop a level of self-esteem that may follow them throughout their lives, and the child who has been listened to is much more likely to develop a positive self-image than one who has not been heard.

One of the best gifts an adult can provide a child is showing the child how to use active listening skills. Adults can model good listening techniques for children and advise them on ways to listen better by picking out the highlights of a conversation and asking relevant questions.

Use the following listening techniques in dealing with the special needs of children:

Pay special attention as they talk. Maintain good eye contact and forget about the telephone and television. Children can tell by the adult’s reply whether or not they have the adult’s attention.

Know when to, and when not to, use active listening. Use active listening when you are free enough of your own problems to show the empathy and acceptance a child needs. Use it when you are in the mood and have the time. Listening should not be a way to change the child’s behavior. Pay attention to the child’s mood too, and make sure the time is right for the child to talk. Sometimes a child just wants to play or to be left alone.

Listen with patience. A child has a more limited vocabulary and often takes longer to express ideas. Listen as if you had plenty of time. We may feel that we know better and cut the child off – but it is far more beneficial to let the child express a thought freely at his or her own pace.

Children sometimes need encouragement to talk. Children haven’t had much experience in the art of conversation, so we sometimes have to ask questions. When a child feels an adult is attentive, the child will be more willing to open up.

Listen to the child’s nonverbal messages. Children communicate not only through words, but also through their body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, energy levels, or changes in behavior. Pay attention to these cues and respond in the way that is best for the child.

It only takes a little practice with listening using the tools mentioned here to improve your listening skills, and thus your overall communication skills, to become a truly accomplished communicator.

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