Listening is one of the primary skills of communication; and one that few people are actually good at. How do I know? Because I know how long it took me to learn to do it (hint: it was during my masters degree training as a Skilled Helper which translates to Counselor which further translates to Extreme Listener). It is hard to do and do it well; especially when talking to the same people day in and day out. I mean, don’t you already know what they are going say? Don’t you already know what they think? What they believe? Who they are?
Perhaps you do. Until you don’t.
Failing to listen
Failing to listen, truly listen is one of the first and most widespread traps that relationships fall into…and it is one of those quiet forces of destruction to intimacy and connectedness. Everyone (even those of us professionally trained in listening) need to mindfully practice it in order to do it well. So how do we do that?
Stop what you are doing
When someone else is talking (especially someone you love), STOP what you are doing and look at them. Really. Turn away from the television. Put down the smart phone. Put down your fork. LOOK at them…in the eyes. Watch their expression, their body movements. Listen to the inflection in their voice. Hear what is under the words; it is a feeling. Hear their emotion. See their experience in your mind, your heart. Identify with their story.
Wait before you respond
Resist the urge to respond. Or solve. Or even to share your own similar story – until you are SURE they are done with theirs. Acknowledging them with an “On my gosh” or “wow” or something else to let them know you hear them is great – but refrain from the desire to “one up” their story with one of your own. Resist the temptation to solve their problem before you have fully acknowledged their experience and feelings. Solve only if they want you to…and don’t be too tied to whether or not they take your advice.
Acknowledge the experience
Acknowledge the experience and the feeling they are conveying to you. If they are super happy, be excited with them. If they are sad, reach out to them and show you care.
Nothing will take you as far in your relationship than this one skill; truly being present and listening.
Afterall, people are in relationships for two main reasons: Because they want to feel important to someone else and they want to feel like someone “gets” them. Having excellent listening skills does both of these things in a big way.
So, now that you know what truly great listening looks like, let’s look at what less than stellar listening might be like (so you can catch yourself):
- Poor eye contact
- Mumbling the obligatory “uh huh” while thinking about something else
- Thinking you are listening but realizing your attention is actually on formulating your response
- Judging what the other person is saying
- Correcting the other person for misusing a word or a mispronunciation
- Correcting a date or other “factual” item in the other person’s story
- Telling the other person how to feel or what to think or how to look at it “differently”
- Jumping in with your own story
- Asking irrelevant questions as if the details of the peripheral items in the story is more important than the person’s feelings about what they are telling you
- Taking a phone call in the middle of someone’s story (I know it seems obvious, but it happens to a lot of people!). Of course, if you are waiting for an important phone call, it is best to explain that if you MUST do it.
- Smiling at, waving at, or looking around at someone else while the other person is talking.
There are more of course, but these are quite common and are counterproductive to making someone feel as if they are most important to you.
It was once said about Bill Clinton (whether you like him, hate him or don’t really care) that his greatest gift was the ability to make the person he was talking to feel like the only person in the room – even in a room full of several thousand people. What a fantastic skill it is to truly be able to stop and listen and make someone feel like the only thing that matters.
Of course not every situation calls for such intense attention, but make sure you practice this at least once a day with your significant other. Especially if they have something to tell you that feels important to them. It will make a huge difference in your relationship, so keep trying!
And, thanks for listening.
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