Build Your Relationship with Listening

Temma Ehrenfeld  @temmaehrenfeld
February 17, 2016  | Last Updated: February 16, 2016
01 Apr 2012 --- Smiling Black couple --- Image by © Inti St Clair/Blend Images/Corbis

Chances are, you’re convinced you do all the listening at home. “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,” writes therapist Michael Nichols, in “The Lost Art of Listening.”

Ask your husband. He may tell you that you talk way too much. 


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Just about everywhere, all the time, people are talking or waiting to talk.

It's too bad. Everyone wants to be listened to, and there isn't enough listening going on because people only pretend to take turns. The solution? Listen! Take turns.

It's important. We want to be listened to because it helps enormously. Have you ever had the experience that in someone else's presence you began to think more clearly and came up with your own solutions to problems that had plagued you when you tried to solve them on your own? 

This is the magic of good therapy. But we can do more of it in our daily lives without pretending to cure anyone. When you decide to listen, you can be enormously useful just by putting yourself aside and focusing on them. As Nichols puts it, “being listened to spells the difference between feeling accepted and feeling isolated.” 

Set aside distractions. Suspend your agenda. Interrupt as little as possible. If you do interrupt your husband, it should be to encourage him to say more.

Try to grasp what he is trying to express, listening to the underlying ideas and feelings, rather than just his words. Try to put yourself in his shoes. Ask open-ended questions. Let him know that you understand.

It’s often harder to listen to our romantic partners or family because we have strong opinions about what they should do, and we’re affected by the outcome. Maybe you think you already know what you’re going to hear, or have a plan for the outcome of the conversation. You may be afraid of what you’ll hear. Hang in when you’re tempted to interrupt, mentally wander, judge, or solve the problem. If a relationship has become anxious or emotionally intense, that can be real labor. 

What counts most is the attitude you take, not your precise words or even your insights. When you feel compassion, approval, respect, and delight in the people speaking to you, they flower in your presence. You may not spontaneously react that way, but if you even adopt the intention of feeling compassion, approval, respect, and delight, you may find that you dissolve some of the anger and judgments in the way. 

Do this and you will see people soften and become more alive. You can find yourself falling in love with your partner the way you did when you first met. Many of us are suffering from too few moments in which we express love.  


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Sadly, even though we long to be loving, we let those moments go by, caught up in bad habits. Notice the ways you avoid listening — and others avoid listening to you. If you can see a problem in others, you may be closer to seeing it in yourself. 

Self-conscious or anxious people too often pretend they’re paying attention when they’re actually worrying about what you think of them. You could avoid listening by filling the space with your own words. Show-offs may be too quick with a joke that directs attention back to themselves. Know-it-alls give advice, making themselves the wise, helpful one.

I have a little set of tests for the “overtalking” disease: When you ask if it’s a good time to talk and hear any variation of the word “No,” do you say: “Let me just tell you this one thing, and then I’ll let you go?” Does silence make you uncomfortable? Do you love to analyze your emotions, express your ideas, or think aloud with just about anyone? When you recall a conversation later, do you only remember what you said? 

Those are all signs that you’re talking more than you’re listening. Aim to listen more than 50 percent in your conversations. 

It’s true that some people are hard to listen to, or just talk too much. They include every detail in their stories or give lectures. 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. 

Keeping relationships alive and happy includes doing all you can to make them rewarding for you. If you can’t listen anymore, you’re probably not getting the kind of attention 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?” Say, “I really need you to hear this story.”

Those requests create the expectation of an exchange. Give your partner all the attention he will accept and ask for the same. Listen well and you'll help yourself, too. Nobody's problems will disappear like magic; in fact, people often bring up bigger challenges as soon as they feel they've made a dent in the last problem. But over time, your relationship will be easier. Listening is an investment. You may feel your life become more meaningful. Over time, you'll be spending more time on what feels most valuable to you and less time will slip away absorbed in anger, despair, and fear. 


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