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Listen Up!: The Key to Stronger Relationships

There is a science behind how we listen and how we respond.

Key points

  • There are different ways of listening and research shows which ones are more effective.
  • Active listening involves paraphrasing a speaker to maximize clarity.
  • Active Constructive Responding (ACR) is a powerful way to connect because you listen for and celebrating another person's good news.

"Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand." —Karl Menninger

How well do you listen? There are different listening levels – and learning to use our ears and attention differently may be the most effective way to persuade, connect, and build relationships.

Below is one way to categorize the ways we listen and how they can affect a relationship. This list goes from the least to most effective listening styles, and the last – Active Constructive Responding (ACR) – may surprise you. ACR is a way to respond to others when they share information or experiences with us. Not only does it teach you what to listen for in a conversation – and essentially, how to be a better listener – it also teaches you how to respond more effectively and in a way that can even help improve your relationships.

Styles of Listening

As we move through the worst to the best ways of listening to others, see where you typically fall—and what might help you get to the next level.

Ignoring the listener. This might sound like a no-brainer; after all, there can’t be effective communication when we ignore someone. But the truth is that many of us experience this all the time. The modern phenomenon of “phubbing" is just one example of how we do this: If you’ve ever been talking to someone and they have been distracted by looking at their cell phone while talking to you, then you’ve been “phubbed” (a portmanteau of “phone” and “snubbing”). We will feel ignored when there is no eye contact, and the person is engaged in another task as we talk. And when someone feels ignored, the relationship deteriorates. (Learn more here.)

Only waiting for your turn to talk. In couples therapy, we have a term for this: Shoot and load. It means that when you are in a conversation, you are just waiting for your turn to speak—and not really listening to what the other party has to say. This is little better than ignoring because you are not really hearing and understanding the other person. By working on what you will say while they speak (rather than actually listening to what they are saying), you are negating what the listener is trying to communicate. This often involves interrupting someone to make your point rather than simply listening to theirs. And it’s not a very effective way to connect.

Listening to the words. This is a good start. One way to let someone else know you are listening to them is to have eye contact. Nod your head as they speak, and summarize what you have heard them say. The summary allows the speaker to affirm or clarify it as correct.

Active listening. The goal of active listening is to build trust and establish rapport. This listening style involves a deeper engagement with the speaker's words. In addition to eye contact, the listener typically leans in as they nod. Active listening adds a reflection to the summary (“I’ve heard you talk about this before") and will paraphrase what is being said to show understanding. An active listener will also ask questions (“Can you say more about what happened?”) as a way to deepen insight into what the speaker is expressing.

Active constructive responding (ACR). This technique is a game changer because it teaches you to effectively listen for and respond to specific information. Sharing a positive experience, like a success, with someone – and then the person hearing us responds enthusiastically to this good news – will boost positivity for both of us and add to our well-being. This is known as capitalization. Additionally, research has found that doing this strengthens the present relationship and is correlated with future relationship commitment and satisfaction.

The science behind ACR shows how even the best relationships are more deeply enhanced when there is a celebration of shared good news. When we comfort someone else’s pain, problems, and issues, that is only half the job of participating in a supportive relationship. As the research shows, what helps most for an ongoing relationship is actually when we celebrate someone’s bright side, too. This simple act of being excited about someone’s achievements allows for a deeper, stronger level of commitment and satisfaction. Next time you listen to someone, listen for their accomplishments and then get them to relive their experience with you. Get them to celebrate with you. It is a powerful way to begin a new relationship or make a good one better.

An earlier version of this post appeared on Infijoy.


Gable, S. L., Gonzaga, G. C., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 904–917.

Woods S, Lambert N, Brown P, Fincham F, May R. “I’m so excited for you!” How an enthusiastic responding intervention enhances close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2015;32(1):24-40. doi:10.1177/0265407514523545