Attention, Couples: 6 Ways to Become a Better Listener—and Strengthen Your Relationship
Fights are unavoidable. These communications skills can help you and your significant other work things out smoothly.
Olena-Yakobchuk/ShutterstockFour years ago, Catherine and Bernard Faidix of Aix-en-Provence met with a relationship mediator to improve their communication issues.
“I was complaining that I wasn’t being heard, and my husband was complaining that I was being aggressive,” says Catherine, 58. “I thought the best thing to do was have a third person listening and helping.” (These are the phrases that make arguments worse.)
Their sessions taught them to react more calmly, listen more openly and understand each other better. It helped bring them closer as they worked on communication with and without the mediator.
“I would be more patient because there was a third person, and my husband felt more confident to open up and say what was in his heart,” Catherine says. “It’s a long process: A lot of practicing, sharing and wanting things to get better. But things can get better, even if you’ve been together 40 years.”
When you’ve got something to say, you want your partner to hang on your every word. But often, it can feel like you’re being tuned out, especially if you’ve shared decades’ worth of mundane exchanges. And as much as you’d like to believe that you’re an ideal listener, you’re probably just as guilty of neglecting your partner.
“I think there’s a great hunger to be heard,” says Helen Ralston, chair of the International Listening Association’s business committee, who does her research near Oxford. “We’ve got the equipment to do it; most of us have two ears, a mind and a heart. And if there’s a great hunger to be heard, this suggests there’s very little real listening going on. Instead of listening, we are more likely to be waiting to offer our own point of view.”
The average person spends between 45 and 70 percent of the day listening to others. But within each 24-hour period, you have very little quality time with your partner. Most couples converse meaningfully for an average of nine minutes each day. If you’re too distracted, you’ll miss more than today’s gossip; you could miss subtle hints about how your partner is feeling, which could bring you closer. Sadly, many of us miss these opportunities to connect.
“Unlike reading, we usually don´t get any proper education in listening reception, even though this is the kind of communication we use most frequently,” says author Kent Adelmann, professor and listening researcher at Malmö University in Sweden.
You can learn to listen more intently and make your partner feel appreciated, not overlooked. Here’s how:
Focus on the moment
It’s natural for your mind to wander during conversation, but if you’re aware of this, it’s easier to combat the tendency. Part of the problem is that people listen faster than they talk. (Follow these mindfulness tips to live in the moment.)
“The average person talks at a rate of about 125 to 180 words per minute, while we can listen at a rate of about 400 to 500 words per minute,” Adelmann says. “The listener always has a superior position, as compared to the speaker. This explains why you can be thinking about work or cooking dinner and still understand the point from the speaker.”
One important step that many people overlook: If you realize that you can’t listen when your partner approaches you, be honest and schedule time to speak later. Then turn off the TV, put down your smartphone and sit together. These simple actions show that you respect your partner and are devoted to hearing her.
“The partner, in adult life, is the most important attachment figure,” says European Association for Psychotherapy spokesperson Annette Kreuz, a clinical psychologist who does couples therapy in Valencia, Spain. “He or she should be a secure base, and that means we have to make space and time to really listen to one another.”
Over time, as couples gradually take each other for granted, conversation often suffers; the listening isn’t intent, as it once was.
“What happens at the very start of the relationship is how it should go on,” Kreuz says. “At first, we want to be sure of everything he says: What he likes and doesn’t like. But in relationships, especially long-lasting ones, people think they already know what the partner will say.”
Have you ever finished your partner’s sentence? Whether or not you’ve predicted correctly, you’re tuning him out, which makes him less likely to share.
“Interrupting is not helpful; it stems from impatience,” says author Michael Nichols of Virginia. “The problem is, we’re not usually that interested in hearing them out. We’re waiting to say what we want to say. We interrupt and say, ‘Oh yes, I understand.’ We respond by telling our story. Those are mistakes.”
When your partner asks you to listen, be conscious of when you speak and what you say.
“Very often, people don’t know when they’re interrupting,” Ralston says. “During my research, I record conversations. Afterwards, when people hear the recordings, they are horrified at how often they have interrupted —they didn’t know they were doing it.”
Effort has helped Kimberly West refrain from interrupting her boyfriend, Lynn. West, 59, knows that Lynn gathers his thoughts before speaking, but she realized that she was interrupting him too often—which was ironic, because she teaches people how to communicate.
“The person asking the question needs to stop, pause and listen in silence to let the other person think, then speak,” says West, who lives in Iowa. “I knew this logically—but this is very hard for me. So I started being more aware of what he needed. Now my boyfriend tells me he feels more loved and respected.”
When your partner shares something meaningful, listen. Don’t give advice, share your opinion or recount anecdotes.
“Most people listen with an intention to react, rather than understand,” Nichols says. “The conversation starts to be like a ping-pong game. Instead of acknowledging or responding, they go back and forth, and neither one feels deeply understood.”
Many people give advice, but refrain unless your partner specifically requests feedback.
“We sometimes assume other people want advice when, actually, they want someone to listen,” Ralston says. “Often, when we have the opportunity to talk to someone who listens, we find that the best listener enables us to listen to ourselves.”
It’s hard to have a meaningful relationship without occasionally arguing, but listening during arguments is challenging for most people.
“Each partner has the opinion that his/her attitude, needs and view of the situation are right and that one needs to convince the other,” says Guy Bodenmann, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Zürich. “Relationship conflicts are important, like the salt in the soup. It’s important that couples fight with each other, but in an appropriate, respectful way.”
Discuss touchy issues when you’ve had time to calm down.
“If they are already very upset and highly physiologically excited when they engage in the conversation, a constructive conversation will not be possible,” Bodenmann says.
Texas native Anna Russell has learned from 57 years of marriage that she and her husband, Gene, don’t communicate when they’re angry.
“Intense feelings tend to put each of us in a glass room, and we don’t hear what the other says,” says Anna, 76. “After I calm down and Gene is detached from the hot topic, we can speak.”
What if you always argue that one of you doesn’t listen? A surprising reason could be to blame.
“What’s underneath those moments is often a feeling of not feeling emotionally connected to your partner,” says clinical psychologist Jette Simon, director of the Emotionally Focused Therapy Institute in Copenhagen.
Talking about your feelings may help you both listen more intently.
“That is often new for the couples: That under anger and frustration is a lot of vulnerability, because they haven’t experienced a vulnerable partner,” Simon says. “When they get it, it’s interesting to watch how much easier they can de-escalate and regulate themselves so they can listen better.”
If you’re sharing exciting news or expressing disgust and you’re met with indifference, it can make you feel like you don’t matter. When the tables are turned, put yourself in your partner’s shoes and listen fully so you can give an appropriate reaction.
“The more the speaker is talking about his/her inner world (why something is difficult and painful for him/her), the easier it is to engage in empathy,” Bodenmann says.
Your nonverbal reaction can be just as important as anything that you say.
“It is never enough to tell somebody about your intellectual understanding, but you also have to show your emotional understanding,” Adelmann says. “A tear in your eyes or your hand on my shoulder express often more than words.”
Check your ego at the door
Want to be a better listener? Ask for help.
“If you ask your partner what you should do differently,’” Kreuz says, “he will tell you. ‘The one thing I hate is when you say this,’ or ‘You don’t sit across the table and look at me.’”
If you’re very talkative, your partner may have trouble getting a word in. Encourage him to talk more, and really listen.
“Let him or her know what you think they’re trying to say and let them elaborate,” Nichols says. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you’re trying to say this,’ and they punctuate it with a period, like, ‘Oh, I’ve got it.’ You want to invite them to talk more.”
You may be surprised at the positive reaction you get.
“When you’re stuck in a way of functioning and somebody shows you that it’s stuck, it’s helpful,” says Catherine from Aix-en-Provence. “It’s changing the way I’m seeing things… and my husband is willing to change, too.”
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