Listening is a skill, and effective communication is the foundation upon which all healthy relationships are built. When relationships break down, be they professional or personal, poor communication is almost always the culprit. If you want to learn how to listen better, it’s critical that we understand how big of a deal this is. Healthy communication promotes healthy relationships; bad communication destroys them.
For counselors, active listening is the best way to build a strong therapeutic relationship in a short amount of time. And while obvious differences exist between a counseling relationship and a romantic one, the tenets of good listening are the same. This is where the concept of “active listening” comes into play.
What Is Active Listening?
Active listening is a communication technique designed for use in counseling and mediation. It has broad applications, though, and can be used by anyone. It requires that the listener fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what has been said. The result is that the speaker feels their words are heard and that their point of view is valid. As you can imagine, active listening is remarkably effective.
It is usually for deeply personal reasons that people see a therapist. They go to see this person — this stranger — and disclose to them their most vulnerable, embarrassing, and compromising truths. Many times, these are things people are unwilling to tell their spouses, their siblings, their best friends. So how do we, as therapists, get clients to disclose these things in such an artificial and contrived situation? The answer is this — we know how to actively listen.
Far more than just being quiet while the other person talks, active listening is not just hearing what that person says, but showing them that we understand. This requires a great deal of concentration and focus, but it works well and is easy to learn. Counselors, doctors, lawyers, police — these are all people trained to use active listening. And there’s no reason you can’t do it as well.
You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time. — M. Scott Peck, “The Road Less Traveled”
The Verbal Part Of Active Listening
There are specific verbal cues you can use to show your partner that you are both hearing and understanding what they have to say. The sooner you adopt these skills, the sooner your relationship will thank you.
One of the most effective ways to use positive reinforcement is to simply thank your partner for talking to you. Use their name and take their hand unless they are sending you signals that they do not want to be touched. “April, I really appreciate you telling me this” is a pretty good example. “John, I value what you have to say” is another one.
This skill is like salt. The right amount adds flavor; too much will make you choke. Use sparingly.
Humans suck at remembering things. When you can, show your partner that you have been listening to them in the past. “I remember you telling me about her,” you might say. “Bob — I remember, he was your best friend in high school, right?”
Is there anything quite so rewarding? When we disclose personal information, we often fear rejection or minimization. But the worst thing that can happen is when you tell your partner something vital and they forget. Show them, instead, that you remember.
Asking relevant questions is a simple and effective way to show that not only are you listening but that you care. Example: “Jenny — she was your friend who died of leukemia right?”
You may remember, though, that your teachers told you there is no such thing as a stupid question. Yes, there is. There totally is. Especially in relationships. Here’s one: “Why is that such a big deal to you?” Here’s another: “Don’t you think you are overreacting?”
Make sure your questions are both sensitive and appropriate. They should only be used to further the conversation or demonstrate that you are listening.
This is when you repeat or paraphrase what your partner has just said. It shows that you are both hearing her and understanding.
If your partner is telling you that she has just been terminated from employment after 10 years of faithful service and hard work, you might say “So, I’m hearing you say that you put in all of this time and energy and these people who were supposed to support you ended up betraying your trust.”
If you are correct, you’ll see her eyes come alive. If not, she will clarify. Either way, you are showing that you care.
This involves asking questions of your partner to ensure that you understand their message. Active listening requires the use of open questions so he or she can expound where necessary.
A closed question begets a yes or no response. For example: “are you okay?” An open question promotes explanation. For example: “Tell me some things that are troubling you right now.” The first question discourages explanation, but the second one makes explanation unavoidable.
Similar to reflection, this is when you relate back to your partner the information that you have heard. If you have been using those other active listening skills, you should have no problems. If not, this part might get you in trouble. It’s like the essay portion of an exam. Your job here is to show your partner what you have learned and then give them the opportunity to make corrections.
When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen. — Ernest Hemingway
The Nonverbal Parts Of Active Listening
Nonverbal communication is more subtle than its verbal counterpart, but it is just as important. It’s the message you send with body language, posture, and tone. It’s how you show them you are hearing them.
Eye contact, or lack of it, is always important. Be mindful of the situation. If your partner is disclosing painful truths, it might not be best to pierce them with a prolonged gaze. Conversely, intermittent eye contact signals lack of interest.
Few things are as powerful as a reassuring smile. Again, situational awareness is key. Sometimes, a knowing smile is appropriate when your partner is sharing their pain. Sometimes, it can come off as condescending. Be mindful of your audience.
Language is hardly the only way we communicate. Crossed arms or a reclined position often tells us all we need to know about the listener’s level of interest. Pay attention to the signals your body is sending. Lean forward and cock your head to the side. That signals engagement.
This is when you adopt your posture and facial expression to reflect those of the speaker. Don’t mimic, as it looks contrived. If your partner is serious, be serious as well. If they are joking, smile. If they cry, let them. Don’t ever tell someone not to cry. Ever.
This is a signal you never want to send. Don’t screw around on your iPhone. Don’t fidget or squirm. Don’t check the time. If your partner is disclosing something sensitive, it is the most important thing happening in your world. Your job is to experience the present moment with your partner. You can’t do that if you’re busy posting status updates on Facebook.
Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. — Karl A. Menniger, psychiatrist
These verbal and nonverbal active listening skills are what turns an artificial and manipulated relationship into a strong therapeutic alliance. And they are in no way disingenuous. They are, however, intentional and deliberate. They foster trust and mutual respect. Without them, your relationship will fall apart.
Every healthy relationship begins and ends with effective communication. When problems arise in relationships, invariably the culprit is a breakdown in communication. We have an obligation to our partners to communicate what we need to remain satisfied. We also have an obligation to listen to those needs.
Precipitating events like adultery may seem like the cause of death in a relationship, but they are usually just a symptom of something much more insidious. Communication problems are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. If we take deliberate steps to ensure that we are using active listening, we can also ensure that our relationships remain alive and well.
This article originally appeared on Blunt-Therapy and is republished with the author’s permission.
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