Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Intimacy Matters: 5 Practices for Deep Listening

An underrated skill, listening deeply, can prevent or mitigate misunderstanding.

Key points

  • Intimacy provides greater health, well-being, and survival, but is often evasive even in our most important relationships.
  • Practicing humility and openness, and examining beliefs and decisions to reduce cognitive bias and error, improves connection.
  • Being present and mindful and adopting a learning and growth mindset helps to improve relationship skills.

If your relationship does not feel satisfying to you, it’s possible that your relationship could benefit from more intimacy. Greater intimacy provides us with greater health, thriving, and an even higher likelihood of survival (Holt-Lunstad, 2010, Pietromonoco, 2017).

Like with so many life and relationship skills, few of us are taught the skills to foster deeper, more satisfying, and intimate relationships. However, with greater awareness and a commitment to practice, learning, and growth (a growth mindset, Dweck, 2006), we can cultivate more vibrant connections with ourselves and each other.

In previous posts on this subject, we discussed how to respond when someone is sharing a concern as well as how to speak from a place of greater authenticity and vulnerability. In low-stakes situations where we can more easily maintain our calm and center of gravity, the practices of listening to understand, demonstrating concern and empathy, and offering affirmation of support may be sufficient to make the speaker feel understood, accepted, and cared for, the necessary ingredients for intimacy (Pietromonoco et al, 2017).

We may even feel in the moment that we did all the right things. But conversations and relationships can still get off track. What could be wrong?

Here are five impediments to deep and effective listening, and how to mitigate them.

1. Cognitive distortions and errors

Even the world’s smartest person is ignorant about certain areas, and mental habits that cause mistakes and errors. According to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (2011), we use mental shortcuts to navigate the thousands of micro-decisions we make throughout the day. While these shortcuts enable us to avoid paralysis while moving through small decisions, when confronting large and complex choices, they tend to be overly simplistic and fraught with errors and biases. Stereotypes, unfounded assumptions, and omissions are examples of the types of cognitive errors and biases that occur if we fail to slow down and deeply consider our beliefs and perspectives around important issues.

Common cognitive errors include polarity thinking, where we tend to view situations, behaviors, or people as good-bad, black-white, and right-wrong, among others. Such rigid thinking keeps us trapped in an inflexible and extreme viewpoint that tends to divide rather than unite. Instead, look for viewpoints and approaches in the middle since they are more likely to be realistic, fair, and sustainable than a strategy emanating from either extreme.

Another common cognitive error is confirmation bias. In this case, we notice data that affirm our beliefs and ignore those that refute them. Holding our beliefs more lightly, say, as evolving hypotheses, can help us attain a more accurate grasp of reality.

Humans are complicated, and therefore so are our relationships. To foster healthy and intimate relationships, the extra effort to listen, learn, understand, and find a middle ground with our lived experience and others pays off in the long run.

2. Projecting our frame of reference

Consider the people you grew up with. You were raised in the same family, socioeconomic group, community, and maybe even faith or religion. And you get along 100 percent perfectly, right?

This thought exercise reveals a vast number of perspectives, even among people of similar backgrounds. The differences, and similarities, can be even more vast with people from far away cultures and communities.

Our beliefs, practices, and priorities are so ingrained that we may resist the idea that they are not the truth of others. While it is true that we don’t know what we don’t know, it is also true that we choose how to respond when confronted with differences. Being open, curious, and accepting of unfamiliar perspectives, even if you choose different priorities and values for your life, can create greater relationship resilience and harmony compared to trying to force homogenization of beliefs.

3. Judging self and others

In the end, we live in a complicated world and we all make mistakes, errors, and have biases. It’s often easier to see such flaws in others, since examining our own inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and mistakes is painful and hard work.

Creating a safe space for ourselves and others to do this challenging inner work provides the best opportunity for us to learn and grow to be more loving and effective humans. Psychological safety includes giving others (and oneself) the benefit of the doubt and forgiveness, avoiding criticism and blame, acknowledging contributions and cultivating strengths, learning when mistakes are made, patience, and honoring the humanity of others.

In short, exercise kindness and compassion with yourself and others.

4. Uncomfortable emotions

Taking the extra time and effort to really understand yourself and others can help you successfully navigate complex situations like building healthy relationships. And few things can stir up emotions, positive or negative, more than the important people in our lives. Emotions can tip the relationship dynamic quickly in the wrong direction if we’re not mindful of our feelings. If you’ve ever said or done something in the heat of the moment that you later regretted, you know what I mean.

Mindfulness helps us notice our emotions in the present moment and allows us time to decide if, when, and or how we speak or act. Sitting with emotions before acting allows for the dissipation of the emotion and a more measured, thoughtful response.

A mindfulness practice like meditation strengthens our ability to pause in the moment, quiet thoughts and feelings, and listen for our deep, inner wisdom.

5. Believing it should be easy

There’s nothing easy about this work but the effort is worth the reward. Think about it this way: You can either spend your time and energy in conflict, anxiety, or loneliness, or you can be proactive in creating healthy and rewarding relationships and or invest in healing conflict. An investment of time and effort and a spirit of lifelong learning can pay dividends for years to come.


Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLOS Medicine 7(7): e1000316.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Pietromonaco, P. R., & Collins, N. L. (2017). Interpersonal mechanisms linking close relationships to health. The American psychologist, 72(6), 531–542.

More from Susanna Wu-Pong Calvert Ph.D., MAPP, RPh
More from Psychology Today
More from Susanna Wu-Pong Calvert Ph.D., MAPP, RPh
More from Psychology Today