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Relationships

Improve Your Relationships by Using This One Skill

Comfort, captivate, and enliven relationships by becoming an awesome listener.

Key points

  • Knowing how to listen can positively impact all your relationships.
  • One important tip: Wait until the other person is finished speaking before you begin to talk.  
  • The listener's positive attitude impacts the effectiveness of the listening; such positivity improves the outcome of the listening.
By LightfieldStudios from Depositphotos
Awesome listening can lead to co-regulation of emotions.
Source: By LightfieldStudios from Depositphotos

"I feel heard and seen," the client offered appreciatively.

"I just wish my partner would put his cellphone down when I'm talking to him," he said in frustration.

"They just don't understand me," the teen shared.

There is a lost art in the precious human relationship: Listening.

How refreshing, even relieving, it is when one is truly heard and understood by another.

Like quenching thirst or feeding hunger, being truly heard and attended to can feel deeply satisfying. To create this for another, becoming an "awesome listener," involves practicing mindsets and behaviors. Often these practices impact the person doing the sharing, as well as the person doing the listening, leading to a deepening in the relationship.

Awesome listeners can range from therapists to life coaches, teachers, parents, family members, work partners, supervisors, clergy, and friends. They offer a gift that is needed now more than ever, with rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide on the rise secondary to the isolation and grief faced by the COVID-19 Pandemic (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 2021).

Awesome listeners, if you've ever experienced them, do several things that average listeners don't do.

First, they have an awesome attitude about listening. Research shows that the listening attitude of the listener plays just as important a role as listening skills. A favorable attitude is associated with a sense of perceived control in workers who had supervisors who listened in a positive fashion, as well as having good listening skills (Mineyama, et al., 2007). Supervisors' attitudes and skills for active listening had equivalent significance, reducing stress reactions and improving perceived working conditions in their employees.

Some of the skills of active listening include being trained to "ask open questions, paraphrase content, reflect feelings, and use assumption checking as well as be nonverbally immediate" (Bodie, et al. 2015).

Second, they know the importance of intent and seek co-regulation rather than dysregulation. Listening with helpful intent is part of what is needed for the process of co-regulation, in which the sharer feels calmer and more composed through being heard. Co-regulation is a process whereby we help another regulate emotion through our voice, our prompts, our reassurance, our words of comfort, and following the lead of the emotion offered by the person speaking (Reed, et al., 2015).

Research in recent years distinguishes between co-dysregulation and coregulation, in which one person either amplifies or calms the emotions of another (Reed, Barnard, and Butler, 2015).

Children who are heard by, or positively parented by, their parents show better self-control, empathy, responsibility, and school engagement (Lewallen, et al., 2015) and less externalizing behaviors. Couples with good communication and listening show "a significantly positive relationship between couples’ communication and marital satisfaction," (Vazhappilly, et al. (2016).

In a clinical setting, "therapists’ and clients’ emotions may be related on a moment-to-moment basis in clinically relevant ways" (Soma, et al., 2020). In the workplace, workers heard by their supervisors and coworkers can even impact physical health. For example, the lack of "support of a direct supervisor... was shown to involve a substantially increased risk of poor health and work-related outcomes" (Hammig, 2017).

Across multiple dimensions and types of relationships, research shows that we can, with the proper attitude and intention toward co-regulation, have a stabilizing effect on the emotions and health of others.

Third, they develop their listening skills. Knowing how to actively listen actually makes a difference. For example, in a study of 115 participants engaged in interactions with 10 confederates trained to respond with active listening messages, advice, or simple acknowledgments, researchers found that "participants who received active listening responses felt more understood than participants who received either advice or simple acknowledgments" (Weger, et al., 2014).

Given this, if one has the proper attitude and intention, how does one become an awesome listener?

Here are 10 shortcuts to becoming an awesome listener and thereby improving your relationships. Awesome listeners tend to...:

  1. Enter the conversation without an agenda to problem solve, give advice, steer the speaker or otherwise influence the direction. Often, conversations started strategically fall short of connection. When the listener has things to say, it reduces presence. While there's nothing wrong with such goal direction, if it robs one of the ability to fully attend to the person who is sharing, it can undermine understanding and empathy. Consider writing your agenda and keeping it for later, separating strategic listening from active listening.
  2. Do their inner work and come to their relationships as a "clear channel." Awesome listeners will employ psychology methods such as cognitive restructuring and reframing to feel clarity and a sense of inner peace before going into a conversation. This allows them to truly focus on the other person, rather than on an agenda.
  3. Eliminate distractions like cellphones, computers, and other distractions. Awesome listeners strive to be fully present so they can fully hear the speaker. Awesome listeners eliminate distractions so they can fully focus on what the other person is saying. There's no sense of competition for their attention. They are actively focusing on whatever you're saying.
  4. Wait until the other person is finished speaking before beginning to talk. Awesome listeners wait until the other person is finished with their thought or ideas before speaking. They refrain from interrupting. This can be difficult when the listener relates, has stories to share, and is excited about the speaker's story.
  5. Spend time considering what they're hearing, and then verbally reflect upon what they're hearing. This is often called offering a mirror of the speaker. Awesome listeners know how to reflect what they're hearing in a fashion that the person speaking knows they've been heard. At times, a reflection might sound like a paraphrase of what was said. For example, "What I hear you saying is that me listening fully is really important to you." At other times, the mirror of the speaker would include asking a clarifying question: For example, "Did I understand you properly when you said that we have different options available?"
  6. Self-regulate and refrain from reacting. Awesome listeners might have a reaction to what is being said, but they suspend sharing their reaction in favor of breathing slowly, maintaining a sense of calm, exhibiting good eye contact, and facing the other with an open posture or a side-by-side posture (depending upon the nonverbal cues of the speaker). Through self-awareness and regulating, the awesome listener opens the door for the speaker to share more. Over time, the awesome listener becomes immersed in the content of the speaker's message. While fully immersed, listening becomes effortless.
  7. Use strategies to immerse themselves in the other person's story. One example: imagining the scenes the other is describing as though watching a film.
  8. Find resonance in the feelings of the person speaking. What's the feeling behind the words? Awesome listeners detect affective changes in the speaker and are ready to learn more about the listener's experience. There is a curiosity, rather than defensiveness or reactivity, in the listening. For example, "I can hear your enthusiasm," or "You sound really hurt by this."
  9. Dig deeper. Enter the space of their own curiousity about the other person. Their inner questions, if present, are for the listener and contain the seed questions, "Who are you? I'd like to understand you more."
  10. Are willing to go slowly, relaxing the speaker. Awesome listeners take their time in conversation. This allows them to connect more fully.

Practicing these shortcuts can lead to awesome listening. As you become an awesome listener, you will also reap the benefits of a calmer, more regulated, closer, and more engaged relationship.

References

References:
Bodie, GD, Vickery, AJ, Cannava, K & Jones, SM (2015) The Role of “Active Listening” in Informal Helping Conversations: Impact on Perceptions of Listener Helpfulness, Sensitivity, and Supportiveness and Discloser Emotional Improvement, Western Journal of Communication, 79:2, 151-173, DOI: 10.1080/10570314.2014.943429

Butler, EA, Randall, AK (2012) Emotional Coregulation in Close Relationships, https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073912451630

CDC, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 2021

Hämmig, O (2017). Health and well-being at work: The key role of supervisor support. SSM Popul Health. 2017 Dec; 3: 393–402. Published online 2017 Apr 9. doi: 10.1016/j.ssmph.2017.04.002

Lewallen, A.C., Neece, C.L. Improved Social Skills in Children with Developmental Delays After Parent Participation in MBSR: The Role of Parent–Child Relational Factors. J Child Fam Stud 24, 3117–3129 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-015-0116-8

Mineyama, S, Tsutsumi, A, Takao, S, Nishiuchi, K, and Kawakami, N (2007). https://doi.org/10.1539/joh.49.81Citations: 32

Rebecca G. Reed, Kobus Barnard, and Emily A. Butler (2015), Distinguishing Emotional Co-Regulation From Co-Dysregulation: An Investigation of Emotional Dynamics and Body-Weight in Romantic Couples, Emotion, 15(1): 45–60.

Soma, CS, Baucom,BRW, Xiao, B, Butner, JE, Hilpert, P, Narayanan, S, Atkins, DC & Imel, ZE (2020) Coregulation of therapist and client emotion during psychotherapy, Psychotherapy Research, 30:5, 591-603, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2019.1661541

Ting, V (2017) Emotion Regulation and Parent Co-Regulation in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Autism Dev Disord 47:680–689

Vazhappilly, J.J., Reyes, M.E.S. Couples’ Communication as a Predictor of Marital Satisfaction Among Selected Filipino Couples. Psychol Stud 61, 301–306 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12646-016-0375-5

Weger Jr., H, Bell, GC, Minei, EM & Robinson, MC (2014) The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions, International Journal of Listening, 28:1, 13-31, DOI: 10.1080/10904018.2013.813234

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