How Can I Be a Better Listener?

Nathan Cobb

By Nathan Cobb, Ph.D.

One question I am often asked is, “How can I be a better listener?” One of the most important skills we can learn is to listen to each other in a careful and loving way. Deep down when we are distressed or upset, part of us just wants to be heard and understood.

Many things prevent real listening. Sometimes, instead of thoughtfully digesting what is being said, we start forming objections in our mind.

Sometimes we feel threatened, and become defensive. We feel that if we don’t speak up and protest that we will lose the “argument” or lose something of ourselves.

Sometimes we believe that not immediately voicing an objection is the same as implying that we agree with the other person.

Sometimes we just aren’t paying enough attention.

In order to be a better listener it is important that you really try to understand what your spouse attempts to tell you. Listening carefully takes energy and work, but can go such a long way in improving your communication.

A useful tool to be a better listener is the phrase “Listen to Learn.” The word “Learn” can be used as an acronym for several important listening skills.

L = Listen Carefully

The “L” stands for listen carefully. This phrase has a double meaning. It is important to listen very intently, calmly and attentively to what is being said, without interrupting, so that you get the whole picture before coming to any conclusions.

Listening carefully can also mean cultivating a caring attitude when listening or being “full of care”. This leads into the next skill of empathy.

E = Empathy

The “E” stands for empathy. Listening with empathy means showing that you care about how your spouse feels. A person who listens with empathy can see the big picture of the other person’s experience – sensing not just what they feel but also why they feel that way.

Empathy has roots in our neurophysiology and the way we learn to deal with emotions in our family of origin. Some families encourage the expression of emotions, for example. They teach children how to respond positively to emotional experiences. Other families discourage awareness and expression of various emotions as a result of intimidation, neglect, criticism, ridicule, or by just not placing value on emotional awareness.

Partly as a result of these early experiences, empathy comes more easily for some people, while for others it may be more difficult, especially in high conflict relationships. With practice and effort, however, empathy can be cultivated. If you struggle in this area, focus on developing other listening skills, while you slowly work on building empathy over time.

A = Ask Questions

The “A” refers to asking questions. A good listener will ask a few open-ended and curious questions to seek clarification or further understanding of what is being said.

Asking questions can help you lessen your own reactivity as you focus on really trying to understand your spouse. It demonstrates that you care and that you are curious and interested in your spouse’s world.

Questions also can help your spouse dig a little deeper and expand their understanding of themselves. When you are curious and ask questions, it may invite your spouse to reflect more and realize something about themselves that they hadn't been aware of before.

R = Recap or Acknowledge

The “R” means to recap or acknowledge. Occasionally it can be helpful to summarize or paraphrase what you have heard in a succinct, yet natural way to ensure that you understand correctly.

To be a better listener, it is also helpful to find some way to acknowledge what is being said. Too often people respond to a statement by the speaker with an immediate objection to that statement. The speaker then counter-objects to the objection, and then the listener counter-objects to the counter-objection (by this point no one is listening).

Instead, find some way to acknowledge the other person’s point. Rather than giving an immediate objection, find some way to say, “That’s a good point,” or “Yes, I can see where you are coming from, because …”

N = Non-judgmental

Finally, the “N” stands for being non-judgmental. Try to listen without being judgmental of your spouse or partner. You won’t be able to show that you understand if you focus on how they are wrong or misguided. You may see the world differently than your partner, but try to be open-minded about why your spouse sees things differently than you do.

Conclusion

As I said in the beginning, concerned and careful listening is an essential communication skill for any relationship. Real listening can open doors, soften hearts, and bring couples together.

Listening isn’t easy, however, so keep working at it, and keep a good attitude toward each other even when you make mistakes. I hope you find these ideas helpful to you in your quest to be a better listener.



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