The Sure-Fire Way to Improve All Your Relationships

By Temma Ehrenfeld  @temmaehrenfeld
September 23, 2015

Become a better listener.

“The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships,” by Michael P. Nichols, a family and couples therapist who also teaches at William & Mary College, may be the most useful book you’ll ever read.

His short list of guidelines sounds simple, but we all can use reminders:

  1. Concentrate on the person speaking. Set aside distractions. Suspend your agenda. Interrupt as little as possible. If you do interrupt, it should be to encourage the speaker to say more.
  2. Try to grasp what the speaker is trying to express. Don’t react to just the words — listen for the underlying ideas and feelings. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Ask open-ended questions.
  3. Let the speaker know that you understand. Use silence, reassuring comments, paraphrasing, empathic comments.

Maybe you already think you’re a good or excellent listener. There are obvious ways we fail to pay attention — by multi-tasking, waiting restlessly for our turn to speak, or simply tuning out — and many ways we fool ourselves that we’re good listeners. Some people learn to do a great job of pretending to pay attention (think of the fixed glaze of a politician). Self-conscious or anxious people often spend their listening time focused on what the other person thinks of them — but believe they’re good listeners because they want to be. Others play therapist or advisor and make themselves the star with their wonderful helpfulness, including unrequested advice. You might be quick with a joke that directs attention back to you. Nichols has a simple rule: “When listening is genuine, the emphasis is on the speaker, not the listener,” he writes.

Real listening means embracing someone else’s need for attention. You hang in when you’re tempted to interrupt, mentally wander, judge, or solve the problem. You may be silent but never passive. It isn’t easy to do, when people talk for more than a few minutes, especially if the relationship has become anxious or emotionally intense.

The pressure is real — because true listening is so valuable. People find great relief when they sense that they’ve been taken seriously. As Nichols puts it, “Being listened to spells the difference between feeling accepted and feeling isolated.”

Serious listening takes time, but it can also save you time. You’ll dramatically cut back on confusion and arguments if you hear what people mean, not just what they say. Skip debates and quibbles about words: “But you said X.” Most of the time, misunderstandings occur because “something in the speaker’s message triggers hurt, anger, or impatience,” Nichols writes. We pick on other people’s words to prove them wrong or demonstrate that we’re not at fault ourselves. “When is an argument not an argument? When you don’t argue back.”

The challenge is to resist giving in to your emotions, including impatience — and keep listening. You may think you already know what you’re going to hear, or have a definite agenda about how you want the conversation to go. You may be afraid of what you’ll hear. All those thoughts and emotions get in the way.

Most people won’t be interested in your point of view until they believe you’ve heard and appreciated theirs. If you’ve got a case to make, you might start by asking questions and show that you’ve listened by entering into the logic of their tale and extending their arguments: “I can see that would imply that…..” For emotional subjects, naming an emotion, “It’s scary,” or phrases such as “I hear you,” actually do help — if you’re truthful.

“Be attentive. Be interested. Listen hard. Overcome the need to get credit for listening,” Nichols urges.

Some people are hard to listen to. Bores dominate conversations with long stories or factual lectures, usually with unnecessary detail. Drama-queens make you feel trapped into watching their performance. Some people talk obsessively about one subject and won’t let you change the topic. It’s also hard to listen to people who never tell you anything personal.

You may need to listen harder. I have a relative who I experience as an unbearable longwinded bore. His take on me is that I talk too much. Apparently, our vastly different perception is the norm. “In forty years of counseling couples, I’ve met very few people who don’t think they do an unequal share of listening in their relationships,” Nichols writes.

The effort of trying to be a better listener will help you see how speakers make that job harder — and may teach you by example. We are least tolerant of our own faults in others.

Maintaining relationships includes doing what you can to make them rewarding for you. When you can’t listen anymore, you’re probably not getting the kind of listening you need. Nichols suggests asking for what you want explicitly. You can say “I’m upset and I need to talk. Just listen, okay?” You can say, “Will you give me some advice, even if I don’t end up following it?”

With someone who often interrupts you, defend yourself, “What I was trying to say is…” If that person continues, stay calm, and say, “I’m sorry but I can’t pay attention to your story because I wasn’t finished telling mine.”

When you make those kinds of requests, of course, you’re creating the expectation that you’ll reciprocate. You ask for respect because you will give it. As awkward as this sounds, you may save your relationship.

Although listening can feel hard in the moment, over time it makes relationships easier. As a reporter, I’ve experienced this over and over: People become funnier, more open, insightful, and creative under the light of good attention. Then, when you least expect it, they reciprocate.  



March 20, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN