It’s likely that just about every person would say they’re a good listener. But listening isn’t an innate ability all people possess; it’s a skill we need to cultivate.

And it’s a critical one for couples, because the foundation of successful communication is being able to truly listen to each other, without “constructing a counter argument in your head,” according to Michael Batshaw, LCSW, a relationship expert and author of a blog about getting engaged.

Even if you agree on a topic, “if listening is ineffective, there will be sparks,” said Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a Denver clinical psychologist and author of the book The Power of Two: Secrets of a Strong & Loving Marriage.

In fact, if you and your partner are getting into frequent spats, your listening skills may be to blame, not that you chose the wrong partner or the problem is too difficult, Heitler said. (Interestingly, people tend to pay the least amount of attention to building their listening skills, she added.)

Also, remember that it takes two to tango. In other words, “It’s important to recognize that there are two parts to any conversation,” the person doing the talking and the person who’s trying to actively listen, according to Terri Orbuch, Ph.D, a psychologist who specializes in couples and the author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great.

Below, you’ll learn the best ways to become an active listener and an effective speaker.

Become a Better Listener

Body language counts. You don’t just listen to someone with your ears; you also listen with your body, Orbuch said. So be sure that your eyes are on your partner and you’re leaning forward. These nonverbal cues show that you’re actually listening, she said.

Ditch the distractions. Try to eliminate all the distractions “that may influence the ability to focus on your partner,” she said. That includes turning off the computer and TV and muting your cell phone. (Yes, that means you shouldn’t text, either.)

Listen to the entire conversation. This sounds easy enough, but most of us don’t do it. We’re too busy building our own case. “For instance if you’re a Democrat and you’re listening to a Republican talk about smaller government, your ears will be focused on what you disagree with, like a debater,” Heitler said. “Debaters listen to prove that they’re right and the other is wrong.” Couples don’t.

The sign that you’ve been acting like a debater? You’ll start the conversation with a “Yes, but” or “I know, but,” Heitler pointed out. You might even express a “silent but,” by dismissing the conversation, she said. She gave the example of a partner saying that the house is a mess, and the other partner responding with, “I got fresh flowers for the dinning room table and I thought it looked beautiful when our guests came.”

Instead, “listen to how you can agree,” Heitler said. If your husband says that the house is a mess, but as far as you’re concerned you’ve been putting in lots of hours keeping it up, it’s tempting to respond with “It’s totally clean, except for the mess you keep creating,” she said.

“To listen to what’s right, you may have to push yourself.” Ask yourself, what is a mess? If you don’t think the house is a mess, you can either “ask for more information (what about it looks messy to you?) or “really think [about] what the other person said.” You might say, “Yes, after that lovely dinner party last night, the guests all left without helping us pick up the table and the little you and I did just added the mess in the kitchen,” or “Yes, the kitchen is a mess and so is the dining room.” Avoid saying, “I spent an hour going around the house and putting things away. How dare you say it’s a mess!” Heitler said.

“The listener has to hold back their own emotional reactions and interpretations, and really try to get the essence of what the speaker is putting out,” said Robert Solley, Ph.D, a San Francisco clinical psychologist specializing in couples therapy.

As Batshaw said, your partner “may actually have a point you aren’t seeing because you aren’t listening fully.” Be “willing to acknowledge that you might not have the whole picture. Getting more information never hurt anyone.”

Paraphrase what your partner said. Summarizing what the person said ensures that you’re hearing “what your partner intends for you to hear,” Orbuch said. But this is more than one partner saying, “I think the house is a mess,” and the other partner saying, “You think the house is a mess.”

As Heitler put it, “no one wants to be married to a parrot.” After paraphrasing, tell your partner what you agree with and add your own thoughts to the conversation with an “and” or “and at the same time,” she said.

Paraphrase how your partner feels. Orbuch calls this “perception checking.” So in addition to understanding what your partner said, you want to make sure you understand how she feels.

You might think your partner is angry with you, when she’s really excited or frustrated, Orbuch explained. You can “Ask your partner, ‘did I hear that you’re really angry with me when you’re telling me about how I was behaving at the holiday party?’”

Empathize. You can follow all of this advice, but if your intention isn’t to listen to your partner, it’s not helpful, said Batshaw, who’s also leading a NYC seminar this spring on Cutting Through the Obstacles to True Intimacy. In other words, “recognize that intention is far more effective than techniques for active listening,” he said.

Also, “The couples who stay the most stuck refuse to fully engage in the other person’s perspective.” Which is hard to do, as stated above, if you’re still holding fast to your position, he said.

In general, if the couple is using listening skills, Heitler’s sample situation would sound like this:

“Yes the kitchen and dining room ended up being a mess,” the wife says.

“Yes there’s a new mess that I’m happy to help you clean up this morning,” the husband says, and adds, “The mess I was referring to actually was all the clutter that you generously cleaned up for two hours before our guests arrived. I was thinking that I would like to pitch in more with the daily clean up, so our standard mess in the house every night doesn’t fall on your shoulders and doesn’t sit around all week.”

She might say, “I love that. How about we talk and pick up every night?” And so on.

Without good listening skills, “A potentially lovely moment [can be] undermined,” Heitler said.

Become an Effective Speaker

Pick the right time to talk. “Timing is everything,” Orbuch said. While there’s no perfect time to talk, you don’t want to bring up important issues after your significant other gets home from work, is exhausted or watching TV.

Stick to one issue. Avoid engaging in what Orbuch calls “kitchen-sinking,” which is bringing up all your problems at once. This is when the speaker might go from talking about her husband being late to the movies to him not washing the dishes last week to not doing something else at their wedding.

Focusing on one topic means “your partner can clearly respond to an issue and figure out how to change,” Orbuch noted. Kitchen-sinking, however, “boxes your partner in and they don’t know where to go.”

Validate your partner’s feelings,” Orbuch said. Instead of saying, “That was such a crazy thing that you had to say the other night,” consider saying, “I can understand why you were angry with me, and I want to discuss that with you,” she said.

Use “I” statements, Orbuch suggested. When the speaker uses the word “you,” it pushes the listener toward getting defensive and not listening. Instead of “You are so disrespectful to me,” consider saying, “I’m uncomfortable with something that happened last week,” she said.

Use X, Y, Z statements. “You do X in situation Y, I feel Z,” Orbuch said. She also added that specific statements are best. So when you tell your partner, “when we go to my mother’s house, and you don’t say hello to my mom right away, I feel very disappointed,’ he knows exactly how you feel, what the issue is and what he can do, she said.

Avoid “always” and “never,” Orbuch said. When you’re talking, don’t use phrases such as “You’re always late” or “You never help out around the house.”

Remember that effective listening and communicating are skills which require practice. As Solley said, couples therapists commonly have clients take “turns being either in the speaker or listener role, having the listener recap back to the speaker, and then switching roles.”

Consider seeking out helpful resources. For instance, Solley uses the book Nonviolent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg, in his practice. Heitler co-created an online program to build successful relationships called The Power of Two, which also helps couples work on their listening skills. As she said, listening is like an athletic skill. It’s not enough to have the information; you have to practice it.

Plus, as Solley added, “…it’s one thing to read what to do, another to actually do it, a third to do it well! A lot of times it takes coaching with a good, experienced couples therapist to really put into practice.”

Photo by Very Quiet, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.