Active Listening: The Key To Good Relationships?

Why do some people seem to disagree but never argue? Some couples manage to get along despite their differences and never end up having heated rows, so what’s their secret?

Image via abrinsky's Flickr photostreamMost of the time, when we communicate with people, we interact. When they tell us a story, we can’t wait to add a comment or two to show how what they’re saying relates to our own experiences and how this means we understand exactly what they mean. However, when we do this, we’re not fully listening to what the other person is saying. That’s fine when you’re down the pub, chatting with friends and being sociable, but isn’t quite so useful when it comes to discussing more contentious issues with a partner.

When you want to talk about little things they do that annoy you, having them chime in every 30 seconds to defend their actions isn’t exactly useful. When they want to talk about why they have such a problem spending time with your family, every “yes, but…” from you is just going to add to their frustration. Whether it’s about the position of the toilet seat or the number of nights you spend apart, listening to your partner’s concerns is by far the best way to start a conversation.

You might think that you are already listening every time you have one of these chats that leads to a blazing row, but are you really taking in everything they’re telling you, or are you just waiting for your turn to speak? Yeah, I thought so. Don’t worry, you’re definitely not the only one, and there is actually something relatively simple that you can do to change that. You need to change the way you listen to something called active listening.

According to Wikipedia, “active listening is a communication technique that requires the listener to understand, interpret, and evaluate what he hears. The ability to listen actively can improve personal relationships through reducing conflicts, strengthening cooperation, and fostering understanding”. Sounds great, but how do you go about it? First of all, when your partner wants to talk about something that’s bothering them, you need to begin by putting everything you are thinking about to one side. Imagine putting it all in a suitcase, zipping it up, and putting it away on a high shelf in your brain for later. Remember, this part is not about you, it’s about them.

When they begin talking, don’t start to interrupt, don’t get defensive… don’t say anything at first! Listen to what they’re saying and take it all in, as if you are at a lecture or debate where the time for comments and questions comes only at the end. Give them time to get their point across and pay attention to their choice of words and body language as they do so. Take a mental note of anything you don’t understand that you want to ask them about when they’re done – did they seem particularly hurt or angry? – and see if you can work out what they need from you as a response.

When you do find that something needs to be said, ask open questions that encourage them to continue talking, like “how long have you been feeling like this?”, and summarise their points to show that you have been listening. Encourage them to go on if they stop before it feels like they’ve said everything that’s on their mind, and don’t be afraid to ask them to tell you more about something if you don’t quite understand what they mean. Being able to have your say and be properly heard can really help to diffuse a person’s anger, but it works well for the listener too. You will gain an understanding of the issue from your partner’s point of view that you probably didn’t have before.

There are many resources on the internet that give tips to help you become a good listener. Mind Tools’ article on active listening is especially good at breaking down what you need to do and how you go about it. OK, so it’s not a magic quick fix as it’s going to be tricky to stop interrupting straight away, and you might not agree with everything your partner is saying just by doing this, but it will help you to understand where they’re coming from which is a really good start. Used properly, active listening is a great tool for avoiding arguments and, hopefully, restoring domestic bliss.

This article first appeared on BitchBuzz in February 2011. Image via abrinsky‘s Flickr photostream.

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