Listening is a skill. In any relationship, healthy communication is the foundation upon which everything else rests. In professional counseling, for example, it is arguably the most important way to build a strong therapeutic relationship in a short amount of time. And while differences abound between a counseling relationship and a romantic one, the tenets of good listening skills are the same.
The counseling relationship is odd. It is usually for deeply personal reasons that people enlist the services of a therapist. They are expected to see this person — a 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. How do we, as therapists, get clients to disclose these things in such artificial and contrived circumstances?
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 intentionality of focus, but it is remarkably effective. Counselors, doctors, lawyers, police — these are all people who are 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”
Active listening is about both verbal and nonverbal communication. Verbal, obviously, is what you say. Non-verbal communication is more subtle. It’s the message you send with body language, posture, and tone. Both are equally important.
The Nonverbal Features of Active Listening
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. Din’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.
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
The Verbal Features of Active Listening
This skill is like salt. The right amount adds flavor; too much will make you choke. Use sparingly.
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.
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. Use open questions so she or he 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.”
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 give the them opportunity to make corrections.
When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen. — Ernest Hemingway
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 those two elements, relationships are doomed.
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. Take deliberate steps to ensure that yours remains alive and well.