Effective communication requires good listening: Here’s the key to improving ALL your relationships

Listening to others is one of the most important skills to acquire. It is a competency used in all life settings—work, school, home—and in various roles, whether as a parent, student, friend, significant other, employee, boss, daughter, son, aunt, uncle, grandparent, cousin or neighbor. 

Life revolves around relationships. Listening well is key to fostering good relationships with others, which also translates into overall happiness. 

As a therapist, I see a high amount of miscommunication due to a lack of listening that leads to misunderstandings, frustrations, conflict and disconnection. Much of my job is helping people hear one another. At times, I feel I am an interpreter in my sessions with families, couples and in parent-child scenarios. 

When people say, “We don’t communicate well,” they often don’t realize that effective communication requires—above all else—listening to understand the other person’s perspective first. Listening well is the secret to successful communication. In my opinion, 70% of time spent communicating could be spent listening.

Using my many years of experience as a clinical therapist, I’ve put together a list of points on what listening is and how to truly listen. But first, let’s dissect what listening is not

Are you waiting to respond with what you think they should do? 

We all do it—we hear a snippet of what someone is saying and jump to telling them what we think they should do. The result of instruction, fixing and problem-solving that comes too quickly and without solicitation from the person sharing is that it cuts them off emotionally: “I was just in the middle of telling you how I was feeling and you slammed on the brakes.” It can feel quite jarring to the other person and they likely won’t feel heard. 

This does not mean that parents and significant others don’t have good intentions with their problem-solving. I hear from men, “I like to fix it for her/him.” Parents commonly say, ”It’s hard for me to see my son/daughter’s sadness. I just want to make it all better.” 

But making it better involves the other person feeling understood. That understanding comes with gaining perspective of their position, validating their feelings and empathizing with what they’re going through. There is no “problem solving” in that, only listening.

Are you listening to defend? 

If you are letting the person talk and merely waiting to make your point(s), you are not listening. This can even happen when the conversation isn’t a contentious one.  

When I see teens explain to their parents how they are feeling, oftentimes their parents jump to, “but I told you…” or “I was doing the best I could…” We head quickly to an agenda of defending why it isn’t our fault and we aren’t to blame for how the other person is feeling. Couples do the same thing.

When a conflict occurs, criticism may start. We move into defensive mode quickly in an effort to avoid hearing something negative about ourselves and brush off difficult feelings. We may even feel a threat of being in trouble like when we were younger. In close relationships, the threat can intensify due to the worry our relationship is in jeopardy.

Are you more interested in being right? 

When you are preoccupied with being right, the goal is to prove your point and win. Ears are turned off. Most likely, there is no curiosity about what the other person is thinking and feeling. The focus isn’t on understanding their experience, only having them understand yours. This means your way is the only way, and no one should challenge you.  

Being preoccupied with being right is a sign the ego is the most important factor. It can be difficult to hear the other person with this closed mindset. 

Are you caught up in judging the other person?

When we are preoccupied in judging the other person, little hearing is happening. Processing what they say through a judgment filter leaves no room for understanding their point of view.  

The judgment filter can be full of assumptions, biases, prejudices and criticalness about the other person’s experience. Again, it falls into “I am right and you are wrong”—a closed mind set.  

Are you interrupting?

If you’re more interested in being right, proving a point and defending yourself, chances are you are interrupting because you actually aren’t interested in hearing what the other person is saying.

Two barriers to listening that often go unsaid:   

  • What do I tell myself about who I am?

There is a second, unacknowledged conversation that interferes with listening. Alongside listening, this simultaneous internal conversation happens. 

We all hold beliefs about who we are from messages received throughout our lives. This is our view of self. These beliefs are a part of our interactions with others.  

Sometimes we aren’t aware they are included in the conversation. If I am communicating with my husband and I historically hold the belief that I am always portrayed as “the bad guy,” I filter what he says through the lens of me being the one at fault. When I am listening, I am on the hunt for messaging that leads to this belief. It taints the conversation and leads to hearing things that actually aren’t said. And my behavior reflects this belief.

  • What do I tell myself about what the other person thinks and feels about me? 

We carry assumptions about how the person communicating with us views us.  This contributes to what we hear them say. 

Most of the time, these assumptions go unverified, causing a lot of confusion in the messaging received. We can take one comment or look, create our own meaning, then wrap our thoughts and feelings around that hypothesis.  

The frequency of these internal conversations is high. This is where my role of interpreter is valuable.  Asking, “What did you hear your partner say?” or “What did you hear your mom or dad say?” often reveals a mixture of what was said and the person’s self-beliefs and assumptions about how they are perceived. 

It is hard to hear the other person amidst  these internal conversations. Understanding all the conversations that may be going on is important, as is knowing your current state of mind and asking, “Am I in a place to listen right now?” 

What is listening?

Listening is only having an agenda of hearing the other person’s experience and gaining an understanding. To truly hear someone and know their experience you have to keep a few things in mind.

  • Be patient:  No one wants to be rushed when they are trying to tell you how they are feeling. 
  • Be curious: Ask questions to gain an understanding. Ask, “Can you explain more so I can understand what you are going through?”
  • Be fully present: The other person feels you are giving them your full attention because you seem interested, i.e., eye contact, engaged body language.  
  • Keep in mind filtering: How might you be filtering what you hear? Try asking yourself, “What other conversations are going on in my head?”
  • Be responsive and validate: Engage in active listening. Paraphrase what you hear to check your understanding. For example, you might state, “I hear you saying…” or ask, “My understanding is that you feel… Is that right?”
  • Be empathetic: You must imagine what it might be like for the other person.  
  • Be grateful: Someone values you so much that they want to share with you!

When someone feels heard they feel valued, respected, validated and understood. By putting yourself in their position, you can create all these “good feels.” Think of listening as something done “from one heart to another.” 

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