“You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time." —M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled.
Active listening is a way of listening that involves full attention to what is being said for the primary purpose of understanding the speaker. It is an important skill set for many different circumstances, ranging from the therapist’s office to the business world. If we are not listening actively, we are likely to miss the real message.
In my experience as a clinician, the ability to use active listening is essential for the long-term happiness of most couples. Attachment Theory has helped us understand that the most basic emotional needs of human beings include the need to be heard and the need to feel important to our partners (Johnson, 2008). One of the most common complaints that I hear during couples counseling sessions is one partner saying to the other: “You never listen to me!”
Social science research also evidences the crucial importance of active listening. Psychologist Willard Harley identified the 10 most common emotional needs of individuals in partner relationships (Harley, 2001). Among these top 10 was the need for “intimate conversation.” He described this need as being met by having discussions to inform or ask questions, discussing topics of mutual interest, and the willingness to listen to each other. More to the point, intimate conversation required giving and receiving undivided attention.
How to be an active listener
1. Listen without making judgments or taking a position on an issue. Gain an understanding of the situation from the other’s point of view.
2. Allow the speaker to finish thoughts without interruption. This usually includes brief periods of silence, such as a few seconds. It may take some practice before being able to know how long to wait before making some type of response. If unsure, it is always better to wait too long rather than speak too soon and interrupt the speaker’s thoughts.
3. Show that your attention is focused. Make eye contact, lean in towards the speaker when your interest peaks, and share any humor with a smile or other natural response.
4. Repeat what you have heard to check for accuracy. Use the speaker’s exact words when in doubt that you have heard accurately; more often, it is better to paraphrase what was said.
5. Ask questions as needed when you don’t understand what the speaker is trying to communicate, particularly when you’re trying to grasp the main point of their statement.
6. Give a short summary to indicate that you have heard and understood what was said.
7. Optional: As the final step, but not sooner, you may choose to share similar situations that you’ve experienced or your own views about the issue. You may even share a completely different opinion than that expressed, as long as that sharing is done after you have understood what was communicated to you.
“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” —Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
What to avoid during active listening
1. Interrupting a sentence. Even if there is a long pause, one should first encourage the completion of the thought by the speaker.
2. Failing to make eye contact. Breaks from eye contact are normal and expected, but a total lack of eye contact communicates a lack of attention.
3. Rushing the speaker. This can be a challenge, particularly when the speaker goes into excessive or unrelated details to tell their story. Do your best to politely encourage them to move along with the point.
4. Getting distracted by other thoughts, or events nearby, and losing focus. Daydreaming while pretending to listen is probably only going to frustrate the speaker.
5. Over focus upon certain details, or asking about minor details that distract from the speaker’s point.
6. Changing the subject abruptly. This includes interjecting an account of “something similar that happened to me.”
7. Making jokes or sarcastic comments which distract from the points being made. Save the humor for later in the conversation.
8. Listening to decide what your reply should be. This is a common risk when the speaker is expressing a complaint and the listener begins to feel defensive. The natural tendency would be to shift focus to “how will I defend myself from this accusation?” or “how will I prove them wrong?” If you have actively listened, you may learn that you don’t need to defend yourself. Your partner may not be blaming you for anything. If blame has been thrown at you, you will have your chance to speak your own thoughts after you’ve listened to the complaint.
“There is a difference between truly listening and waiting for your turn to talk.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson.
As the great American poet Emerson suggested, you will have your turn to talk. There is really nothing to gain in a partner relationship by skipping the first step: active listening. Very often, the partner who needs to be heard is simply needing to vent some frustration and to know that you care enough to listen, even if there’s nothing you can do to “fix the problem.” Listening attentively may be the best thing you can do to create a more satisfying partnership.
We all need to be heard by those closest to us, regardless of whether we’re right or wrong, and rational or irrational. Whatever the circumstances, the process of listening has a high likelihood of transforming the relationship in a positive way.
Johnson, Susan (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown, & Company.
Harley, Willard F. (2001). His Needs, Her Needs: Building An Affair-Proof Marriage. Fifteenth Anniversary Edition. Revell Publishing.