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“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth

The following is courtesy of Julien Elia

Much ink has been spilled on the importance of communication in romantic relationships. For instance, the benefits of using “I statements”, the importance of talking about one’s feelings, or trying to avoid using accusing or criticizing language. All of the above are positive, and I promote their use wholeheartedly. But there is, however, a subtler element to communication that does not seem to benefit from as much attention. An ingredient so important that without it, ‘communication’ would simply be ‘speaking’. The key element is listening.

At first glance, listening appears rather simple, and we all do it, right? Sit back, relax, and just hear the words exiting your partner’s mouth. But such a description would likely suit ‘hearing’ better than listening. In reality, listening is more complex, and certainly more challenging. But the good news is that knowledge and practice can lead to a significant improvement in our ability to truly tune into one another, and the payoffs are plentiful.

Listening entails much more than merely hearing a partner’s spoken words. In a 2003 study on communication in relationships, researcher Faye Doell drew attention to a key distinction, namely the difference between listening to understand and listening to respond, concluding that the former led to greater relationship satisfaction. And this distinction highlights one of the central elements of listening: understanding. Here are five strategies to help you along in your quest to become better listeners and as a result, most likely better partners, (and while you’re at it, better parents, family members and friends…)

Don’t make it about you. How many times are we engaged in conversations and all we want to do is give our opinion? Fix things? Defend ourselves? Listening is mainly about the other. It is about putting your needs, your opinions, your hurts aside temporarily and creating space and attention for the other to speak, to laugh, to cry, to explore – to just be. By being supportive and encouraging of this space, we are creating safety and freedom for our partners, as if saying to them: “You can say and feel what you need to say and feel right now. I can create that space for you.” Putting your partner first can be hard, especially if what they’re talking about is triggering or hurtful. Keep in mind that you don’t need to agree with your partner, or even like what they have to say. But being in listening mode is not the time to share your side of the story. (Don’t worry, you’ll get your turn… see below.)

Tune into their world. If you need to, take the time to actively prepare yourself to tune into your partner’s world. This can look like a brief solo-pep talk, or even a grounding ritual that can help you clear out your own agenda and focus on the other. Immerse yourself in your partner, turning their words and non-verbals into a narrative of a movie or book of their experience.

Strive to understand. As the listener, your first responsibility is to try to understand the position or experience of the other. Therefore, if what you’re getting isn’t clear, then ask clarifying questions to get the full picture. Steer clear of judgment and opinion, (which tend to be more about you than about your partner) and instead focus more on expressing interest and curiosity. This is your partner after all – would you not want to acquire a greater understanding of what they’re experiencing? Learn more about what makes them tick? Discover how they’ve evolved? Beyond being supportive in listening, acquiring a more profound knowledge of your partner deepens intimacy – one of the greatest antidotes to relational strife.

Take turns. Take a few deep breaths if you need to, and keep in mind that it is crucial for both partners to get a shot at expressing themselves and be listened to. Your turn may not be in 5 minutes, it may not be until after your partner’s finished their part. In fact, if you don’t feel the need to share your part, you may not even need to take your turn… this time. But be sure to get your turn next time around, or when something comes up for you and you will feel the need to express yourself. It’s only fair that if you provide that support to your partner, that they return the favour. So hang tight.

Don’t try to fix. Validate instead. Although good intentions may underlie attempts to fix, it is best used when solicited, as fixing often overshadows a partner’s experience and fast-tracks the discussion to the solution stage. Bombarding the other with suggestions and recommendations may appear caring & helpful, but it can also be received as “how is it that you haven’t thought of this?” Ultimately, as social creatures, what we often need above all else is to be heard, to be held, and to know that we are not alone. And therefore, validating our partner’s experience can go very far in providing such supports.

When working with clients, it never ceases to amaze me how many relationships have benefitted by simply applying some of the techniques listed here. As discussed above, part of the reason for this is that we acquire a greater understanding of one another, which is extremely important. But there are two more critical benefits that listening provides, often hidden from view. For one, in itself, being listened to deeply is calming and it can act as a dependable stress-reliever. Second, and more importantly, recognizing that our partner can reliably listen to us and be there for us significantly improves trust, the granddaddy of all relationship needs. So much so that renowned couples’ clinician and researcher Dr. John Gottman reported that the most significant predictor of healthy long-term relationships is reflected by the feeling that “I can trust that you will be there for me if I need you”.

So go out there, get your partner. Sit them down and let them tell you about them.

Julien Elia, M.A., OPQ, Psychologist