- Listening is a basic social skill, but it takes practice to do well.
- Listening and perceived partner responsiveness form a positive feedback loop that promotes a variety of positive relationship outcomes.
- Good listening can make the other person more likely to engage in self-disclosure and create a higher sense of “interpersonal chemistry.”
You can undoubtedly sense when you’re talking to a good listener. Something about the way the person either looks at you or makes empathic comments allows you to feel comfortable with this individual and, therefore, more likely to open up further. If this person is your romantic partner, this ability to listen allows you to feel emotionally closer, supported, and understood.
As much as you may admire and appreciate being in a relationship with a good listener, perhaps you feel that you’re just not all that happy with your own listening skills. You’ve noticed that people, including your partner, seem frustrated with your lack of responsiveness to their needs. When you meet people for the first time, the conversations seem to run out of steam almost as soon as they get started. Coworkers don’t ask you to join them for informal breaks or offline remote chats, and even your relatives seem to get so bored that, at family gatherings, they try to pull away as soon as they can to speak to someone else.
According to a newly-published review paper by University of Haifa’s Guy Itzchakov, collaborating with University of Rochester’s Harry Reis and University of Reading’s Netta Weinstein (2021), decades of previous research support the observation that good listening is a mechanism that drives the “interpersonal connections… known to conduce many positive intrapersonal affective and cognitive outcomes.” “Listening,” they continued, “is a basic social behavior and one of the most fundamental features of a social interaction.” It’s worth sharpening this key aspect of your ability in order to relate well to others.
The Role of Good Listening in Relationships
The Intimacy Process Model, developed by Reis and coauthor Phil Shaver (1988), proposed that good listening helps promote “perceived partner responsiveness,” which is the belief your partner has that you understand and care for them and validate their view of the world and themselves.
Listening and perceived partner responsiveness form a positive feedback loop that, in turn, promotes a variety of positive relationship outcomes. Your partner will feel less anxious and defensive because you reinforce an atmosphere of openness and mutual respect by showing that you hear them. Your partner doesn’t have to be afraid of saying the wrong thing because you show that you won’t commit a rush to judgment.
It’s not only in close relationships that perceived partner responsiveness comes into play. You may be talking to someone you’ve recently met and find that you and this person come out on opposite sides of a controversial issue, such as a COVID-related face mask or vaccine mandates. It may infuriate you to hear this person’s position. Still, if you allow yourself to listen–and show that you’re listening–you may end up having a conversation in which each of you feels respected even if you ultimately disagree.
10 Qualities of the Good Listener
All of this is well and good, you may think, but what exactly are the markers of a good listener? Can you think of the behaviors that signify you’re being understood, validated, and cared for by someone you consider a good listener?
Seeking to identify these “enacted” behaviors, Itzchakov and his coauthors whittled down a list of 19 indicators that reflect both good listening and high levels of perceived partner responsiveness down to ten that specifically apply to good listening.
These ten qualities fall into the two categories of verbal and nonverbal behaviors and are as follows along with explanations of each:
Verbal: Showing that you understand what the person is saying.
- Reflections: Paraphrase what the other person is saying to show you get the meaning.
- Open question: Ask questions that don’t have a simple “yes” or “no” answer to keep the conversation flowing.
- Validation: Reinforce what the person is saying by indicating you understand.
- Utterances: Use simple words that encourage the other person to keep speaking (e.g., uh-huh, okay).
- Use the speaker’s name: help the person feel more valued by repeating their name at various points in the conversation or when you want to show you hear them.
Nonverbal: Behaviors that indicate you’re paying attention.
- Facial expressions: Allow your face to convey interest, empathy, and curiosity.
- Head nodding: Occasionally nod along with what the person is saying, especially at important points in the conversation.
- Body posture: Orient your position to show you’re paying attention by allowing your body to turn towards the other person.
- Gaze: Maintain eye contact with the speaker and don't look distractedly elsewhere.
- Silence: Stay quiet and don't interrupt the other person or seem too eager to break in.
How many of these do you feel you naturally use in your interactions with others? Do you feel that some of these are easier to put into practice than others? Although the authors don’t rate these in terms of difficulty, it would seem that the toughest require the most effort, such as reflecting and validating.
It’s pretty easy to nod your head and even easier to use the other person’s name. However, showing that you are not only paying attention but also comprehending may take some practice.
How Can Good Listening Benefit Your Relationships?
Within the model, connecting good listening to perceived partner responsiveness, the Israeli-led research team identified a host of favorable outcomes. One set is those they labeled as cognitive and included greater open-mindedness, changes in attitudes, and less tendency to put on a false front to impress the other person. The affective or emotional changes had higher self-esteem, more positive emotions, and higher levels of well-being.
Finally, in terms of behavior, good listening sets off a chain of positive changes that can lead the other person to be more likely to engage in self-disclosure and a higher sense of “interpersonal chemistry.” You know you’ve clicked with someone else. This last finding suggests when that person seems to understand you and care about what you have to say.
The good listening-perceived responsiveness connection becomes particularly important in a long-term close relationship. Going beyond just the idea that you and your partner have strong positive affective bonds (i.e., “love”), Itzchakov and his colleagues maintained that “although a necessary component, [it] is generally insufficient to produce satisfying resolutions; rather attention and responsiveness are also needed.”
Your partner may be telling you about a successful day at work, but instead of showing that you’re listening, you seem bored or go to great pains to point out the downside to the day’s events. The authors maintained that this kind of poor listening is associated with “relationship distress.”
To sum up, in the authors' words, listening is “an active contribution to conversational dynamics rather than a passive act of receiving information.” Honing your listening skills by following these ten tips will allow you to enhance the broad range of social relationships that ultimately promote your own fulfillment and those of the people you’ve listened to.
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Itzchakov, G., Reis, H. T., & Weinstein, N. (2021). How to foster perceived partner responsiveness: High‐quality listening is key. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. https://doi-org/10.1111/spc3.12648
Reis, H. T., & Shaver, P. R. (1988). Intimacy as an interpersonal process. In S. Duck (Ed.), Handbook of personal relationships (pp. 367– 389). Wiley.