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.