Relationships feel fulfilling when we feel connected to our partners. This requires good communication skills. When we feel heard and understood, and when we fully understand others, we feel seen, safe, close, and connected. When we feel misunderstood or we misunderstand others, we feel disconnection. Disconnection is one of the most painful feelings in a relationship. In disconnection, we feel isolated, frustrated, alone and often angry.
For good reasons, people often come to my office to work on developing better communication skills. When asked what they need to work on, they almost never say, “being a better listener." While being able to articulate our thoughts and needs is an important communication skill, what is even more important is learning how to listen.
In relationships, listening and hearing are not the same thing. You may hear every word spoken by the other person, but that does not mean you understand what they’re saying. To listen skillfully in a conversation means to seek to understand, rather than only listening to respond. If you don’t listen to understand what the other person is saying and seek to know what they mean, you can’t know what response is most relevant. When you listen ready to respond, you miss the chance to understand what the person wants you to know, and that usually leads to conflicts. When we listen in order to understand what the other person is saying, instead of wanting to be heard ourselves, our responses are very different and conflicts happen less often and are always less intense.
Two people can’t listen and be heard at the same time. You have to either listen first, or the other person has to; it cannot happen at the same time. But there is plenty of time for one person to be heard, and the other to be heard afterward. You have to slow down and deal with one thing at a time.
In order to be heard, we must listen first. In order to know what to say in response, we must know what has been said to us. Listen to your partner with the intent of understanding them, rather than making it about you. The following are examples of ways you may hear what your partner says rather than listening and seeking to know what they mean:
- Your partner tells you what they think and it’s different from what you think. You assume they are telling you you’re wrong. Rather, they want you to know them, and they happen to think differently. There is plenty of room for both of your opinions. You don’t have to fight to choose one or the other.
- Your partner tells you what they need, and you hear it as though they’re saying you’re not enough. In fact, they have needs that you can’t predict and you can’t always know. They are telling you about themselves, not about you. You may hear it as judgment but that judgment isn’t coming from them.
- Your partner tells you about an experience with a friend that they enjoyed, and you hear them saying they want you to be more like that person. Actually, they aren’t comparing you in that moment, just telling you about their experience.
It’s difficult not to take things personally, but there are skills you can practice and develop that will help you to be able to understand what your partner is saying, versus what you’re hearing. The following tips will guide you to become a better listener so you can, in turn, be better at speaking to others:
- Ask questions. Listen with the intent of understanding what the person is saying. Don’t assume you understand. Ask questions to clarify. Check out the stories you have about what they think or mean. You might understand in part, or in full, or not at all, but you can’t be certain unless you ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions and allow your partner to help you understand them.
- Listen to know the person speaking. Whatever the person you’re communicating with is saying is information about them—what they need, what they think, etc. Too often people listen and hear the other person saying something critical about them when the communicator was likely telling you something about themselves. If you take everything personally, you won’t know others; you’ll just be hurt and defensive.
- Lessen defensiveness. If you’re listening and not fully understanding, or hearing someone and taking what they say personally, you’re going to get defensive. Once defensive, you will be unable to hear accurately. Our mindset is everything, and if we’re in an angry and defensive state of mind, we hear from that place. Instead, notice defensiveness is there, and attempt to self soothe. Take deep breaths and loosen your body. Try to remember the person speaking is telling you about who they are, not who you are. Ask questions to clarify what they mean by what you've heard.
Once you learn to listen, you’ll notice how much easier it is to communicate effectively.