The importance of listening in relationships

One of the most common complaints brought to counselling by couples is that they are not able to communicate effectively

“When I try to talk to my partner, it is like he doesn’t hear anything I am saying. He is always distracted and does not make eye contact. I end up feeling angry just for trying to talk to him about my day.”

One of the most common complaints brought to counselling by couples is that they are not able to communicate effectively.

Whether it’s a matter of distraction, misunderstanding, or conflict, somebody is left feeling not heard. Fortunately, there is hope when couples present this as a problem in their relationship because, ultimately, they are seeking the same thing.

Both men and women want to be heard and acknowledged in what they are saying and how they are feeling, and most people will agree that they also want to support and love their partner by being a good listener.

Listening is one of the greatest tools of effective communication, but it is a skill that takes practice. True listening causes both partners to feel valued and it can be monumental in adding depth to relationships that are struggling.

To listen better, there are some practical things you can do.

First of all, practice keeping eye contact when you are speaking to your partner. This is a visual aid that shows that you are committed to hearing what the other person has to say. This will also help you pick up on things, such as body language, that you may miss if you are not looking.

Secondly, ask questions. Clarify if you are unsure of what your partner meant by something that was said.

Many people jump to conclusions by automatically thinking they know exactly what the other person meant. Do not assume that your understanding of the situation is correct; instead, ask your partner if the way that you interpreted his/her words is correct.

Thirdly, if you think you understand what your partner is saying, take the time to repeat back what you heard. This will both show your partner that you were, indeed, listening, and allow him/her a chance to clarify if you misunderstood something that was said. One generalized observation is that, when listening, men like to try to figure out what is wrong and fix it, and women tend to figure out how the other person is feeling and empathize.

If you’re not sure what your partner needs from you (empathy, or a solution), ask them! This step alone, can cure most communication problems that exist.

Secondly, pay attention to the “unspoken” part of listening — body language, tone of voice, and use of words. Both the listener and the speaker convey so much by the way that they hold their bodies.

A tight, tense body on the part of the speaker sets the stage for a tense conversation, as the listener will often feel like he is under attack. On the other hand, a bored, limp, disinterested body on the part of the listener, conveys the idea that what the speaker has to say is not important.

Keep an open posture as much as is possible and be aware of what your body language may be conveying! Likewise, tone of voice and choice of words convey the emotion behind a conversation.

Tools such as sarcasm, swear words, sighs, and even sharpness in the voice can bring tension into a conversation. And when tension arrives, so does defensiveness.

If you catch yourself using a tone of voice that you do not mean to, simply stop, take a deep breath, and continue what you were saying in a controlled way.

Finally, active listening involves emotional awareness.  Our own emotions influence the way that we perceive other people’s words, and direct the way that we use our words.

If you are tired after a long day and your partner tries to talk to you about making an important decision, you may not be a very good responder or listener. Sometimes it is best to take stock of your own emotional state and postpone a conversation, if possible.

If that is not possible, you can at least tell the other person how you are feeling so that they can be aware of the state in which you are entering into the conversation. This fosters a sense of togetherness as you each look out for each other’s feelings through the conversation.

Additionally, good listening skills allow you to not only hear the words that your partner is saying, but also to understand the emotion behind your partner’s words. Connecting on an emotional level is key to a healthy, strong, growing relationship.

Practice listening to your partner and affirming the emotion that he or she is expressing. Sometimes the most powerful thing is just someone taking the time to acknowledge how we are feeling.

If you wish to ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail them at Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead and Sara Lynn Kang at pacific therapy & consulting inc. It appears every second Friday in the Record.