By Stephanie Chupein

Almost all couples come into counseling and report poor communication with their loved one. They are usually not looking for someone to just hear their words or listen absently, but to share their experience, their view of world. This sharing of experience validates their existence and their value. “The first duty of love is to listen” (Paul Tillich). When we feel truly listened to, validated, our spirit soars and we can relax or grow or change or be.

A lack of true and intimate communication can lead to loneliness, a sense of isolation and ultimately anger at the person we hold dearest. It cuts to our core need for connection, to be known as we are.

“Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.”

Sue Patton Thoele

However, we don’t converse in ways that allow this to happen. We are trained to converse from an adversarial position. Many things get in the way. Our own thoughts and agenda, assumptions and preconceived ideas, and our own emotional reactivity to what our partner is saying can block our ability to truly hear what is being said.

Here are some tips to improve your ability to listen to your partner. What you get in return will be a more satisfying and open relationship.

1. Make eye contact. The words we use to express our views are only a small percentage of communication. To send a message to your partner that you are truly paying attention, make eye contact. Lean into them, soften your facial expression, and keep your body stance open and non-judgmental.

2. Focus on what is being said and its underlying meaning. Good listeners do not spend their listening time preparing their defense or trying to correct what is being said. Good listeners first attempt to hear the words and then the underlying meaning of what is being said, even when they may disagree with the content. Steven Covey says, “seek first to understand” what your partner is saying. This is easier said than done because it calls for you to suspend your own needs and focus on the needs of your partner. It calls for you to temporarily put your need to correct the facts, defend yourself, or judge your partner’s statements aside while you focus on understanding.

3. Mirror and validate what is being expressed. Mirroring your partner’s facial expressions, body language, and words is part of the reciprocal nature of a conversation. It is almost a dance that lets your partner know you understand what is being said. The ultimate in mirroring occurs when a healthy parent is responding to an infant. They mimic the child’s facial expressions, noises, and emotions, letting the child know he or she is not alone. Through this process, the infant can grow and develop. It is the same with your partner. You can each grow and develop through the process of providing an empathic ear to one another. When you validate you respect what is being said and ultimately felt, even if you may not agree with the content.

4. Manage your reactions. Strong reactions to your partner usually result from a disagreement in what is being stated. You may become emotionally reactive because they said something that you experienced as hurtful, fearful, or shameful. However, understanding, compromise, and resolution cannot result until each party is heard and understood. This goes back to a temporary suspension of your own needs and if only for a few moments, existing only for your partner. Your turn will come, but if that is your primary focus, you will not extend an empathic ear and will ultimately not “get” your partner.

5. Avoid making assumptions. Even couples that are just learning to communicate often make assumptions about what the other will say. Maybe this is a result of earlier hurtful experiences, but making assumptions cuts your partner off and does not allow them to fully express themselves. Even if you do know what your partner will say, he or she needs to say it.

6. Empathy, empathy, empathy. Empathy is the ability to experience the emotional content of another human being. Ron Shaffer describes empathy as “the inner experience of sharing in and comprehending the momentary psychological state of another person. By accepting your partner’s feelings in a nonjudgmental manner, you will create an open and safe environment. For true intimacy to occur, a safe environment in which to be heard must exist engaged between couples. Empathy is the basis for growth and change. It is what a mother provides her infant daughter; it is what a therapist provides his client; and it is the element that allows us to grow and change. Empathy is transformative.

7. Be polite and kind. Rather then shining light on your partner’s weaknesses, focus on his or her strengths. Be gentle with weaknesses, and sometimes they melt away. Focusing on weaknesses strengthens them and leads to bitterness and anger. Avoid interruptions, negative facial expressions, and giving only partial attention. Treat your partner in the ways you would like to be treated – with respect and dignity.

The transformative nature of good listening can be an amazing aspect of a healthy relationship. We are drawn to and keep people close who make us feel worthy, valuable, and understood. These skills will enhance not only your primary relationship, but also your relationship with your children and co-workers.


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