Six Essential Practices for Improving Listening Skills in Relationships

Noemi J. Mullins

Although it may be obvious that good listeners have certain qualities, they are often complex. It’s a delicate balance of receiving and reciprocating–taking information and giving attention and care. As much as how we talk or respond, we listen to influences the conversation. You might think of the old saying, “If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is there to hear it, does it make any sound?” It is a Mindbender, which leads us down many philosophical paths involving object permanence and the human impulse to centre our own experiences. Does it cease to exist if I don’t see it? No. This one is simple and clear, unlike many other riddles. Why has this riddle endured so long? We continue to ask this question.

This is because the nature-inspired problem doesn’t have an answer. It’s about finding those philosophical paths. This question contains a powerful commentary on relationships and the need for reciprocity. The sound of the tree is not just a sound, and it also shakes the earth. How we react to these vibrations determines the tree’s experience. Did it get cut? Is it still healthy? Did it die? Was it able to crush any of the below-ground plants? Is it necessary to remove the debris to allow for new growth? What does all this have to do about listening skills in relationships?

1. Learn the Difference Between Listening and Hearing

Regardless of the type of relationship–romantic, platonic, familial, or collegial–actively showing that we listen to the other person validates their experience and vulnerability. It is not enough to say “I’m listening”; we must also share a story, a grievance or a need with the other person. Nothing makes us feel more connected than engaging in thoughtful talking and hardcore listening.

Use this important practice: Invite the other person to participate in a small assessment. Be lighthearted and kind. Ask each other:

  • What is the best time to have great conversations?
  • Is there a sign that my attention is losing?
  • Please show me your face when I’m listening intently.
  1. Return to the Beginning

We are taught from a young age to use our words. The Western norm stresses direct communication and articulating one’s needs clearly as a key step in building self-confidence and self-esteem. It’s interesting. It’s important to encourage one another to speak up. Communicate! Be a champion for yourself. It’s possible to shout it from the highest peaks! But we don’t always prioritize listening to the same.

Use this important practice: Ask each other…

  • How could you tell if an adult was serious when you were a child?
  • Do you remember ever realizing that your stories were funny because of the reactions of others?
  • What lessons were you given at school and home about listening?

2. Do not touch the Rebuttal Button.

Howard Markman, a couple’s therapist and researcher, said that when we hear something we disagree with, it takes us ten seconds to respond. This is about three sentences before we start to defend. Even if we don’t interrupt, we start making mental notes about everything we want to refute once it’s “our turn.”

Use this important practice:

  • It is easy to talk about our feelings like facts. This can lead to a lack of communication and misunderstandings to a heated debate.
  • Listen to what is being said, not what is being counter-argumentation.
  • Instead of being focused on being right, think about what you might be right about the other person’s words.

3. Learn Reflective Listening Skills

Harville Hendrix, PhD, and Helen LaKelly Hunt (PhD) developed Imago Dialogue, a three-step process of reflective listening that focuses primarily on Mirroring, Validation and Empathy. Imago Dialogue allows us to dialogue in a non-judgmental environment, with each other’s valid points of view. This type of inquisitive listening and how the speaker provides direct feedback completely changes the dynamic.

Use this important practice:

  • Ask the other person to have a conversation about a particular topic. Start with something positive.
  • Talk from me and me.
  • Listeners will follow the speaker’s lead and say, “Let me check if I understand.” You’re still X. “Did I get that right?”
  • The speaker will respond by saying “yes, you did” and “you got some.”
  • Listeners will then be able to ask, “Is there more?”
  • Listeners will confirm the speaker’s words by using phrases like “What you have said makes sense.”
  • Listeners will feel empathy for others by sharing their feelings.
  • Change roles.

4. Listen to each other aloud.

Psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm presented six listening rules in a 1974 seminar. Three of these are listed below.

  1. “[They] should be able to empathize with others and feel the experience of the other like their own.”
  2. The condition for such empathy is an essential aspect of love. Understanding another person is to love [them] in an erotic, but also in the sense that one reaches out to them and overcomes the fear of losing ourselves.
  3. “Understanding is the foundation of loving. The separation of the two is cerebral and leads to a closed-door on essential understanding.

This is a great practice to try: Fromm’s whole seminar was published in a book called The Art of Listening. You can borrow or buy a copy at your local library. Each week, take a few minutes to read aloud a different rule to each other. Each person can listen to the other as they read a passage. It is possible to either listen to the passage or discuss it afterwards.

5. Ask new questions about old stories.

Joint storytelling is a unique way to communicate. We learn a lot about a couple’s story, including how they met, got married, had their child, what they did together for their honeymoon, and how they survived a natural disaster. It is also possible to learn a lot by the details that are forgotten, misunderstood, or not remembered until the right question shakes our memory.

Use this important practice:

  • Ask your partner to tell you a story from a different perspective. How would someone who is not familiar with the story relate it?
  • What are the predominant colours, smells, and textures that you recall from your original experience?
  • What would you have thought the other person in the story would have seen about the setting? Why?
  • What would the rest of the day look like if the experience had not occurred?
  • Which negative aspects of this experience are you most grateful for? Why?
  • What would your experience look like if you were the same age as you are?


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