You may have heard that the key to having a fulfilling relationship with a partner, a friend, relative, or just about anyone has to do with being a good communicator. And while most of us associate skillful communication with being a more eloquent and articulate speaker, it’s the other side of the communication process on which we may need to put more of our attention in order to become more highly skilled. And yes, listening is a skill. And like any other skill, it can, with practice become more highly developed, which will promote more successful and fulfilling relationships. In our book, Secrets of Great Marriages, the vast majority of the people we interviewed cited their partner’s ability to listen well as a primary factor that influenced their level of satisfaction in their relationship. And in our own nearly 50 year marriage, we have found that becoming more skilled the art of effective listening, or “world-class listening” required us to unlearn many entrenched defensive patterns, cultivate some new ones, and practice, practice, practice!
Becoming a world-class listener does require a lot from anyone who chooses to accept the challenge. What makes it challenging is that the process requires us to unlearn previously established defensive communicative patterns and replace old habits with non-defensive responses. Doing so requires a level of vulnerability that can cause us to feel uncomfortable or fearful, particularly in the early stages of the process. But with practice (there’s that “P“ word again), we can become increasingly more comfortable using our new communication tools. Most of what we refer to as ordinary listening, or the kind of listening that we generally experience on a day-to-day basis isn’t grounded in an intention to bring an open, receptive, curious attitude into our conversations, but is to get our own message delivered in a way that is likely to bring about our desired outcome of the conversation. Ironically, when we are willing to subordinate this preference to a desire to understand, rather than to be understood, it becomes more, not less likely that there will be a mutually satisfying outcome to our conversation.
World-class listening is not simply a kind of passive receptivity. It requires the listener to be penetrated by the other’s other’s words and feelings. It involves more than an exchange of information. It requires the listener to not simply hear the words of the speaker, but to be informed by them, and to be open to the possibility of being influenced by what they are receiving. When someone is able to respectfully accept another’s feelings, thoughts and desires, and is able to override their own impulse to be in the spotlight, their relationship can thrive. A willingness to show up to honor a partner’s needs deepens the level of trust and respect that is present in the relationship. What follows are a few guidelines that you might want to consider if you’re interested in upping your level of listening skills.
1. Express a desire to understand how the other person sees things.
2. Rather than trying to get the other person to listen to you, listen more attentively to them.
3. Eliminate or at least minimize external distractions during your conversation.
4. If possible, face each other directly and make eye contact during the conversation.
5. Ask questions that are designed to provoke insight and discovery.
6. Practice patience and resist the temptation to rush the speaker when you want them to “get to the point.”
7. Don’t interrupt.
8. Paraphrase what you have heard and feed it back to the speaker to make sure you have understood them correctly.
9. Ask clarifying questions and provide encouragement designed to prompt the speaker to say more when you need greater clarification.
10.Try not to jump to conclusions prematurely.
11. Don’t complete the speaker’s sentences even if you think you know what they are going to say.
12. Don’t offer advice unless it is requested, and sometimes not even then. Advice can sometimes feel like criticism.
13. Provide non-judgmental feedback. Let them know when you-re “with them” and when you’re “lost”.
14. Keep in mind that it’s not necessary to express disagreement when you don’t agree with something the speaker is saying. Saying nothing at the time does not mean that you agree.
15. Withhold any criticism or judgments that you experience.
16. Request examples or details if that may be helpful to your understanding.
17. Listen to the speaker’s feelings, not just their words.
18. Show genuine interest in what they are saying, rather than silently preparing your rebuttal to them.
19. And finally, keep in mind that “Listening is an act of love.” – Jim George