Improving and Practicing your Communication Skills Part 2: Listening Skills
Relationships grow and develop when partners work on improving communication skills. In part 1 of this article we discussed talking skills; now we move onto listening skills.
When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving advice you have not done what I have asked.
When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I shouldn’t feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings.
When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problems, you have failed me, strange as that may seem.
So please, just listen and hear me, and if you want to talk, wait a few minutes for your turn and I promise I’ll listen to you.
What happens when you are heard?
I believe that no matter how much or how little you talk, being heard and understood just feels good. Someone is able to jump into your shoes and try to understand life from your perspective. This is called empathy. I believe that empathy forms the basis of love and intimacy in a relationship. Someone actually cares enough to share your excitement, sadness, disappointment, fears, hurts, frustrations, anger, etc. You feel like you are not alone in this life. This helps to heal our wounded feelings and move on.
When sharing your life with someone who is important to you and if you do not have a partner that will do this, you can feel resentfully alone or turn to others for this sharing. You may turn to a friend, your kids, your family or perhaps another adult in an affair to be heard. Many times the reasons for an affair are that someone feels like they are not heard, validated and appreciated in their current relationship. They are at high risk of bonding to another person who does listen to them. This act of listening actually brings you closer to the other person even if they are telling you how angry they are with you.
In my counseling practice I see many people who just want to talk. They need to be validated and acknowledged. This helps them to feel a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. Validation or acknowledgement as described before does not mean you have to agree with or even understand everything your partner is saying. But you do have to listen and see what it means for them as you make an attempt to understand. Simply looking at your partner and being able to be open and shaking your head affirmatively or saying “I hear you” are a great start. I remember one male partner who felt it wasn’t necessary to talk with his wife because she had already said it once. He failed to see how talking for her was so important. She felt heard, understood and validated. Venting your feelings and thoughts, negative and positive, releases the pressure that has stored up all day or even for weeks. It just feels good for a lot of people. Suppressed feelings can cause anxiety and depression.
Some people do this more naturally and easily than others. Some people may need this more than others. Many women will say, “he doesn’t want to talk,” or “I have to talk through the newspaper or the ball game.” The message she may get is the game or news (or whatever) is more important than she is to her partner. The very first thing I prescribe for my ailing couples is to make time practicing talking and listening using the exercise described in my Step 1 CD and in my book Taking Space, pg. 17.
Listening Skills: Talking and listening are some of the first things couples need to learn to keep their relationship healthy
Good listening always begins with paying attention to each other as you talk. Look at each other, give eye contact, face each other. Be aware of body language and nonverbal messages. Be as open as possible to listening and understanding. The need to be fully seen and heard is often at the heart of good communication.
2. Acknowledge and Validate Each Other
This skill is probably the most important of all. Good listeners do this much of the time. Acknowledge the other person with a simple nod of the head and statements like, “Wow, you had a tough day!” or “You sound or look tired/sad/happy/scared/angry.” In satisfying relationships people give and receive an abundance of positive and validating strokes. Good listeners are able to temporarily suspend their own feelings and thoughts so they can listen with well controlled judgments or defensive feelings. Of course, this is difficult to do when you are in conflict with your partner. You may hear your partner saying things that sound threatening and don’t fit into what you believe to be true, and these things may trigger fear, sadness, hurt, disappointment, or anger. Good listening is at the heart of making up, letting go and moving on.
It may feel forced at first, but even attempting to acknowledge what your partner is saying, especially during periods of conflict, can begin to have a positive effect on the climate of your relationship. It is crucial to build on this by getting to know your partner’s inner world. This kind of empathy forms the basis for love between people. Open up so you can listen with your head and try to understand and listen with your heart. You can get a feel for what the other person is actually going through. You must try to suspend your thinking and judgments and attempt to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and experience what they are experiencing. Can you relate to them from any past experiences where you have had similar feelings? If not, try to imagine how this would feel for you. This is why it is important to know yourself and how you are affected by what your partner is sharing. Always listen to the other person’s experience before sharing your own.
It is important not to confuse this with agreeing with everything your partner is saying. You may understand but disagree with your partner. The point is to develop the ability to listen and tolerate someone who is different from you. This requires being aware and managing and controlling your inner reactions. Work on controlling your feelings and behavior, even while you may be hearing things that trigger anxieties, hurt, and anger. The stronger sense of self that you have will allow you to hear what someone else is saying, even though you may not like it or his or her words sound threatening to you. When you get defensive or angry it usually means you are so affected by what the other person is saying that you will have trouble listening without being controlling, judgmental, or shutting down. This usually means we are feeling fear and anxiety about what we are hearing. If you cannot tolerate or accept these feelings in yourself, you will have difficult hearing them from another.
This is why intimate communication with another person can allow us to grow and develop. As we grow and develop we become better communicators.
3. Reflect, Summarize, and Paraphrase
Reflecting, summarizing and paraphrasing (also called mirroring) what your partner says shows that you understand and have heard what your partner is saying. This minimizes misunderstandings. To do this, repeat in your own words what you have heard to be your partner’s points and ask for clarification and confirmation. Once you can do this comfortably, try acknowledging your partner’s underlying feelings as well. Summarizing can begin with a statement like, “Let me see if I have gotten what you just said.” If you are inaccurate, ask your partner to clarify so that you can understand. The talker can also ask the listener to summarize what has just been said. This skill will take practice and patience to acquire.
4. Ask for More Information
Asking for more information indicates your interest in your partner. Ask for more information after a pause in the conversation and continue to ask for more until your partner has no more to say.
5. Ask Open Questions
Asking open ended questions to gather or fill in missing information or to clarify confusing information allows an experience to be shared in the talker’s words. Open- ended questions encourage the talker to continue talking and shows your interest in what is being said.
The following are examples of open questions:
- “Tell me about your meeting with your boss.”
- “How did your lunch with Mary go and what did you talk about?”
- “What did you like about the movie?”
- “How did you feel when Joe started to get angry?”
Try to avoid too many why questions, since they tend to put the talker on the spot and force answers the talker may not have. Also, too many questions can limit the natural flow of the talker.
Ground Rules for Talking
Agree in advance that only one person talks at a time, for at least three but no more than five minutes. The other person just listens. You can feel, think, and say whatever is on your mind. Your opinion is just that, your opinion. Your partner is also entitled to opinions, feelings, and thoughts.
2. Don’t Interrupt
You may not interrupt your partner except to ask for clarification.
3. Try to Understand Your Partner
When you hear things that make you angry and are unable to listen, call a time-out, and take a break. Attempt to listen to your partner’s opinions, beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. Try to understand what your partner thinks and feels about the issues being discussed. You do not have to agree! Even though what you hear may be threatening or hurtful, it’s important that you listen and acknowledge what your partner has to say. Again this does not mean that you are in agreement with what your partner is saying! As you develop a stronger sense of YOURSELF, you will get better at this.
4. Focus on Not Becoming Defensive, Blaming, Critical, Sarcastic, or Withdrawing During the Conversation
Each element of your communication process includes your overall attitude, non-verbal body and facial expressions, and what you say. All are equally important. Own your own feelings. Try to avoid blame by using “I” statements whenever possible. For example, “When you interrupt me, I feel angry.” Avoid “you” statements such as “You make me feel angry.” Others can deny “making you” feel anything, but they cannot deny that you feel what you feel.
5. Limit This Exercise to Thirty Minutes
You can agree to extend the time, but having a limit in place is very important. Each partner should get equal time.