Julia Flood, LCSW
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4 Ways To Become A Better Listener

Whether you’re on a first date, or you’ve been married for a decade, what people want first and foremost in a relationship is to feel understood, validated, and supported. This can be tricky, especially when you are used to giving advice, seeing things differently, or what you hear “pushes your buttons.” Becoming a better listener is easier said than done, and in my counseling practice I typically spend a lot of time teaching couples this very skill. But even a few good habits can make a big difference, as long as you look for opportunities to practice them regularly.

1. Show your partner that you care

It can be challenging to care about your partner’s experience when they haven’t asked you about yours in a while, but as you probably know, a stalemate gets you both nowhere. Ask your spouse how the meeting went. Ask things like: "What was the most important part?," "Did you expect that?," "How do you feel about that?," and "What does that mean to you?.”

2. Show your partner that you get it

It can be extremely difficult to have empathy for your partner’s position when you disagree. This is normal, you are two different people! The art is to be able to hold on to your own reality while listening to the other’s. In order to deal with that, you may have to quietly remind yourself that their perspective is their perspective, and you don’t need to take things too personally. Tell your partner that you can see how they feel the way they do. Tell them you would be stressed out, too. Acknowledge it when your spouse sounds relieved or worried, anxious or angry. When you don’t understand their position, ask to tell you more and pick your partner’s brain until you start to see their point.

3. Show your partner that you’re on their side

Showing your partner that you’re on their side when they are at odds with another party may seem obvious, but it is often not expressed directly. As an outside observer it may be easy for you to see your partner’s part in a conflict, or you may even find yourself identifying with the other party. While there may be a time to help your partner review his modes of interacting with others, when you are trying to practice your listening skills is not the time! Whenever you can with integrity, take your partner’s side as a true friend would, and don’t be "helpful" by providing "the other person’s perspective." You may say, "That guy is such a jerk!," or "You must be furious!," or tell your spouse you are proud of them.

4. Hold off on the advice

This approach can be challenging, especially when the “right” answer seems obvious to you, or you are being asked directly for it. Resist the temptation! Most people give feedback or look for a solution way too early in the process, and have difficulty leaving things “unresolved” for a little while. So even if you think you know a good solution, resist solving the other’s problem for them. People often just want to vent and see that you get it. Giving advice is rarely appreciated, and certainly not before you have understood the issue from their angle. Instead, show solidarity and encouragement: "We will figure this out together. You’re not alone in this!"

All of the techniques above are highly effective, but they require a lot of skill on your part. The goal is to stay calm, keep listening, and make your partner feel understood. It gets easier with practice!