Listening Skills For Strong Relationships

I have a sign that used to hang in my office that read, “What people need is a good listening to!” Or, perhaps you’ve heard the old adage, “Humans were given two ears and one mouth for good reason- more listening, less talking.” These simple sayings hold truth; good listening strengthens families, marriages and relationships. If someone doesn’t feel heard, it’s difficult to establish trust, connection or affection- in short, it’s hard to develop relationships with poor listening skills!

Good listeners are in tune to body language-both her own and the other’s

Have you ever been sharing something with someone and you notice his eyes darting in a different direction? Or, they stop and grab their phone saying, “one minute, I just have to respond to this text.” Right away this makes you feel smaller, as if what you are saying holds less value than the distractions of the day. Good listeners keep their eyes focused on the speaker. Shifting eye contact periodically may be appropriate now and then, but in general maintaining steady body language says, “I am present, available and listening.” It’s also good practice to stay in tune to the body language of the speaker and mirror him or her. For example, if someone leans in, brow furrowed and speech focused, leaning in as well and focusing your own facial features sends the message that you are in-tune. If the speaker is in a more relaxed pose, eye contact less direct and tone less pressured, a more relaxed presence on your end will make the speaker feel more understood.

Good listeners stay away from nervous or repeat phrases

Have you ever spoken with someone who inserts incessant “mhhmmm’s,” head nods or “okay’s” into the conversation? While verbal affirmation is encouraging, too much of it is off-putting and feels insincere. It begs the question, why do you need to say, “yes” to everything I am saying? I’ll never forget in one of my earlier counseling jobs, I worked in a hospital setting. I saw many different patients in a day. I sat in one woman’s room doing what I thought was a decent listening job-taking notes and assessing her needs. She stopped me mid session and said, “You keep nodding your head. You don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everything I say.” The feedback was humbling but helpful, in the midst of our session I was side-tracked, preoccupied and far from present. As a result I was resorting to auto pilot phrases and she felt unheard. Check in with yourself before entering a meaningful conversation and ask: “Do I have unattended business that will keep me from staying focused?”

Silence is not the enemy

Many people are uncomfortable with silence. Sure, silence in the middle of a conversation can feel awkward but it can also be a useful tool to think of a thoughtful question or comment. Oftentimes, we use a break point in the conversation to talk about ourselves or shift the topic to something we’ve been dying to “let out.” Allowing silence to simmer gives space, and often times the most thought provoking and interesting statements surface after due pause.

Keep your agenda in check

Approach the conversation with as much of an open mind as possible. Notice if you have an agenda going into the conversation- this can be particularly true with spouses. If your goal in the interaction is, for example, to feel affirmed or provide instruction or prove your point, you’ve set up a recipe for defensiveness, judgment and reactivity. Usually, an individual can sense if the conversation is loaded with expectation. Now of course, we’re all human, so curbing expectation altogether is a nearly impossible task, but some expectations and needs present as wildly out of check. You’ve likely experienced the conversationalist who exudes “Please like me!” or “Think I’m important!” This puts a lot of pressure on the conversation and makes it hard to share your true self.

Good listeners reflect back

I have a dear friend who oftentimes in conversation will say: “Let’s pause for a minute just so I know I’m understanding. What I hear you saying is_________. Is that right? Or am I off? ” It never gets old when she does this! Do you know why? I feel SO heard. Granted, she knows me well so it’s rare she is entirely ‘off’ about something I’ve said, but even if she were, she would still be giving me the opportunity to clarify and share my true self. Any time a listeners gives you the opportunity to develop and share more of your self, she has given you a gift.

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