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How to Listen Well

Learning to listen well can revolutionize your relationships.

Key points

  • Listening is an essential, but sometimes overlooked, element of healthy communication.
  • You can change the way your conversations go just by changing the way you listen.
  • Our brains are wired to listen to respond. We can teach our brains to listen to understand.

When I work with couples on healthy communication, I often say that there are two parts of communication and that each part is equally important. The first part of communication is the talking part. This includes what we say, how we say it, and the timing of when to bring up a topic. But the second part of communication, and the part that is often overlooked, is that of listening.

To be a good communicator, you must be a good listener. Think of the game of Telephone that you might have played growing up. In this game, a group of people sit in a line. The first person thinks of a phrase and whispers it to the next person in line, who in turn whispers to the next person, and then the next person, until it gets to the last person who announces what they heard to the room, usually to a round of laughter at how different the message is from where it started. This is a game of listening. Each person whispers to the next person exactly what they thought the person before them told them. However, somewhere along the way, the listening did not work, and they heard the wrong message, leading to confusion. This is the perfect example of how communication often goes awry.

So how can we listen effectively? Here are three tips to help you effectively listen. These tips can help to change your relationships and deepen your connection—whether with a romantic partner, a close friend, or even at work.

1. Make sure your brain is tuned in to listening. Our brains, by nature, often divide our attention during a conversation. Part of our brain is listening, and part of our brain is thinking of our response. This works great in some situations—like anticipating the questions that a waiter might ask when we are ordering food. But most of the time, we listen better when we listen with our full brain (and this is particularly true in times of tension or conflict). Instead of listening to the other person with the intention of coming up with a response or a rebuttal to their point in the argument, listening to make sure that we understand the points that the other person is saying can completely shift the dynamic of the conversation.

To practice this, try to ask yourself, What did they just say? If you can repeat back a summary of what the other person said, then your brain will be doing its job of helping you to listen. However, if you find yourself wondering what they just said and not able to summarize their key points, it might be time to ask if they would be willing to repeat themselves, so you can make sure that you understand what they are trying to tell you.

2. Double-check to make sure you got it right. Just because we are fully listening does not mean that we will always get it right. Our brains listen and filter our understanding through our own experiences. That means that the exact same words can take on entirely different meanings based on how our brain attributes tone, past experiences, and expectations to what is being said. For example, take the phrase “I’m fine.” Sometimes when people say they are fine, you believe them—they might have a positive tone or you were having a positive interaction so when they say they are fine, your brain decides to believe that they are fine. However, if you had just had a fight with that person or they had a harsher tone their “I’m fine” might really sound like “I am not fine” to your brain.

This is why it is important to check to make sure that your brain interpreted the information correctly. You might ask, “I heard you say that you were fine but I’m also hearing you sound a bit upset, is that correct?” or “I hear you say you are fine taking on that extra work, but you also mentioned feeling overwhelmed in our last meeting. Are you sure that you feel okay about taking on this project?” By verifying that you heard and interpreted correctly, you give the person you are communicating with the chance to correct any information you might have misunderstood, and often prevents a lot of tension that comes from misunderstandings.

3. Ask questions to deepen your understanding. Lastly, it is important to ask questions to help you understand the perspective of the other person. This does not mean that you must agree with everything they say, but it gives you the opportunity to fully understand their perspective instead of jumping in with information to support your side of the conversation. This helps to make sure that you are truly understanding the core of their needs, as well as showing the person you are talking to that what they are saying is important to you. This, in turn, often helps them to feel ready to listen to you and what you need to say.


More from Amy Smith Ph.D., LMFT, CFLE
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