Becoming a better listener in your relationship may involve skills like empathizing, serving as a mirror, and paraphrasing. But it’s important to be an effective speaker, too.
Active listening in relationships can be a game changer. But, what is a good listener and how can you connect better to your partner?
The foundation of successful communication is being able to truly listen to each other, without “constructing a counter argument in your head,” says Michael Batshaw, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and relationship expert.
In other words, the first step to being a better listener to your partner is to actually listen to learn from them, not to respond to them.
“It’s important to recognize that there are two parts to any conversation,” says Terri Orbuch, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in couples. “There’s the person doing the talking and the person who’s trying to actively listen.” If you’re working on improving communication in your relationship, you may want to work at being good at both.
Body language counts
To listen better in a relationship, you may want to start by identifying all the processes involved in communication.
For example, Orbuch explains you also listen with your body. How you move, where you look, and how you sit or stand may indicate how good of a listener you are.
If you want your partner to feel you’re actively listening to them, consider:
- holding eye contact
- leaning forward
- avoiding your phone and other distractions
- engaging in facial expressions that are reassuring
Focus is key
The secret to being a good listener is to focus on what the other person is saying to you. It seems simple but, for some people, it may be easier said than done.
You may want to start by eliminating all the distractions “that may influence the ability to focus on your partner,” says Orbuch. That includes turning off the computer and TV and muting your cell phone.
Debaters aren’t invited
Engagement isn’t only about replying or building your own case in reference to what your partner is saying.
An important active listening skill is to pause the debater in your head and engage the listener.
“Debaters listen to prove that they’re right and the other is wrong,” says Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver clinical psychologist and author of the book “The Power of Two: Secrets of a Strong & Loving Marriage.”
How do you know if you’re a debater or a good listener? The first one will tend to start their reply with a, “Yes, but…” or “I know, but…,” says Heitler. You might even express a “silent but,” by dismissing the conversation, she adds.
Using the silent treatment or indifference, or any other toxic behaviors, may also be a form of “silent but.”
“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,” explains Robert Solley, PhD, a San Francisco clinical psychologist specializing in couples therapy.
Paraphrasing goes a long way
Summarizing what your partner is saying ensures that you’re hearing “what your partner intends for you to hear,” Orbuch says.
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 puts it, “no one wants to be married to a parrot.”
Paraphrasing might also involve adding your interpretation of what was said and checking with your partner if that’s accurate.
Getting more information about the points you’re not clear about also sends the message that you were actively listening and are now considering what was said.
Heitler also suggests telling your partner what you agree with and what your own thoughts are by using the words “and” or “and at the same time.”
Making assumptions might not help
Orbuch calls this “perception checking.” In addition to understanding what your partner said, you want to make sure you understand how they feel.
You might think your partner is angry with you, for example, when they’re really excited or frustrated, Orbuch explained.
Consider asking something like, “Did I hear that you’re feeling XYZ with me because of how I behaved at the holiday party?” That gives your speaker the chance to clarify the emotional aspect of the conversation.
Empathizing for the win
“Recognizing the intention is far more effective than techniques for active listening,” says Batshaw. “The couples who stay the most stuck refuse to fully engage in the other person’s perspective.”
That’s when empathy comes in. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand what they’re going through, even if it’s not your experience, is a powerful connector.
In the end, the goal of being a good listener is to connect genuinely with the other person. For that, you may need to go beyond just hearing what they say and make an effort to understand their experience and perspective.
Picking the right time to talk
For communication to be effective, context needs to be taken into account.
“Timing is everything,” says Orbuch.
While there’s no “perfect time” to talk, you may want to consider not bringing up important topics when either of you is engaged in other tasks that require attention, or when one of you is exhausted or having a bad day.
Checking with your partner to see if it’s a good time to talk, and respecting what they tell you, may be the first step toward having an effective conversation.
Sticking to one issue
You may have a few things to talk about, but if they’re unrelated, you may want to approach them one by one.
Orbuch says it’s important to avoid “kitchen sinking,” which is bringing up all your problems or concerns at once.
Focusing on one topic means “your partner can clearly respond to an issue and figure out how to change,” Orbuch notes. Kitchen sinking, however, “boxes your partner in and they don’t know where to go.”
Validating your partner’s feelings
Whether you’re responding to your partner after actively listening or you want to bring up the conversation, it’s important to validate what your partner is thinking and feeling.
This may look like acknowledging you understand what they’re going through even if you don’t agree or can’t relate.
The next step might be to ask more questions about the possible reasons why they feel this way and the way you can support them. You may also want to express how you think or feel about the same incident, and try to find some common ground to connect through.
Using “I” statements
When a speaker uses the word “you,” it may push the listener toward getting defensive and stop listening.
For example, instead of saying, “You’re so disrespectful to me,” consider saying, “I feel uncomfortable when you do that.”
Using X, Y, and Z statements
This means pointing out a behavior (X), in a given situation (Y), and saying how it makes you feel (Z).
When you do this in a conversation, your partner can identify a specific scenario, understand how you feel about it, and know what they need to do.
For example, you may say to your partner, “When you don’t say ‘hi’ to my mom whenever she comes over, it makes me feel angry and disappointed.” They now know that saying “hi” to your mom is important to you.
Effective listening and other communicating skills require practice. How to listen better in a relationship starts with engaging your whole body, limiting distractions, paraphrasing, and empathizing with your partner.
Learning how to become a good speaker may also help you improve communication so you can work on a lasting bond.