By Dr. Susan Heitler for YourTango.com.
A healthy relationship is easy to spot by paying attention to how well the two people listen to each other. When both partners in a couple listen well, their conversations on even the most sensitive topics flow smoothly. That’s because both partners consistently feel that what they say is heard and taken seriously. Do you listen like a pro in your conversations?
If not, your relationship may be heading for difficulties; not listening well leads to arguments. In research by Denver psychologists Scott, Rhoades, Stanley, Allen and Markman, just published in the journal Couple & Family Psychology, interviews with 52 divorced individuals found that the three major contributors to divorce were lack of commitment, infidelity and conflict/arguing.
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Most people think they are good listeners, yet few truly are. How can you tell if you are a great listener? Try looking to the people who really know how to do it: counselors and therapists are listening professionals. Here’re guidelines for how these pros practice their craft. You can aim to do the same and enjoy successful communication in your relationship.
Listen to absorb data.
Good listeners are like sponges. Proper listening begins with full focus on absorbing what your spouse or partner is saying, followed by using that information to expand your understanding.
One common listening mistake is to be thinking about what you are going to say next, instead of truly tuning in as your spouse is talking. The brain can only function on one track at a time. You are either taking in data or processing your own thoughts. Both at once doesn’t work.
Another mistake that blocks data absorption is the act of listening for what you think your partner is really saying, instead of taking what they are communicating at face value.
A third mistake is to be listening for what’s wrong with what you are hearing, in order to correct it or to show that what you are going to say next is more right. Here’s an example:
“I can’t find my new yellow shirt.”
“That shirt’s not new. I gave it to you last year.”
In this conversation, the second person didn’t even bother to respond to the question; they merely stated what they wanted to communicate.
So, to absorb data in conversations, focus on absorbing, understanding and using the information you are actually hearing.
Listen with a steady focus.
Attention is like a beam of light. When your listening is fully attentive, the light beam stays fully focused on the speaker’s words. The beam is like a conduit through which everything your partner says travels through, to register completely in your mind. Unfortunately, that’s not always how people listen.
If that light beam is bouncing around, odds are you are too distracted when you listen. If the beam of light is too narrow, or focused like a laser on small details, you may not be hearing the full intent of the message.
Listening effectively means your stance is collaborative, not adversarial.
When people listen to show that the speaker is wrong, their stance is adversarial. You are listening to show that you are more right, more powerful, or a winner of some sort, aiming to dominate over and vanquish your opponent rather than to join in harmonious and loving collaborative dialogue.
Instead, aim to regard the person you are listening to as your partner. Together you can work on collaboratively gaining understanding of the subject about which you are conversing.
Great listeners respond with and — not but.
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“But” deletes whatever sentiment came before it. Unskilled listeners often respond to what they just heard with, “but…” or the equally problematic, “yes, but…”
Here’s an example:
“I’d like to go to dinner early.”
“Yes, but I won’t be able to leave work until after 6:30 tonight.”
Compare that with a response that begins with the word yes, then specifies what you agree with. Finally, the response discusses your differing perspective with “and,” or even better, “and at the same time.” So, for example:
“Yes, I’d like to go out tonight too. And at the same time I probably won’t be able to leave work until after 6:30.”
Which would you prefer to hear, the “but” version or the “and at the same time” version?
Here’s an exercise to practice effective collaborative listening:
1. Ask your friend or loved one to tell you about something that he or she did today, then respond as you normally would. The first time you listen, think about what you disagree with, and what your partner is saying “wrong.” Also be mindful of what is wrong with the way you are hearing. That’s easy to do if you start each of your responses with the word “but.” Remember, that sets you up to contradict what you heard.
2. Debrief by asking your spouse what their speaking experience was like.
3. Then re-run the same drill, but this time listen for what interests you and for what you agree with in your partner’s narrative. Start your response this time with the word “yes.”
4. Again, debrief with each other to find out how this interaction felt to each of you. Re-do the drill, switching roles so you are the speaker and your partner is the listener.
What did you learn?
More from YourTango: Compassionate Listening
Three listening stances: two problematic and one very effective.
Listening to your own thoughts (often to prepare a rebuttal) when someone else is talking instead of listening is listening from a narcissistic stance. Narcissism sets you off in a bubble, separated from your partner. Narcissistic listening is both off-putting and provocative.
“Listening for what is wrong with…” This stance is adversarial. If you do this kind of listening with your spouse you will feel like competitors or enemies instead of like lovers.
Listening like a pro involves listening for what makes sense and what is right with what the other person says. This is a loving stance and promotes close, caring connections.
Listen to absorb information in the way a sponge absorbs liquids. Most of us are good listeners when the information we are receiving is non-threatening. Problems arise, though, if we feel attacked and stop really listening. Then instead we become oppositional, ignore, minimize, contradict or otherwise block information that is coming our way.
Do not listen like a hockey goalie blocking the other team from scoring. When you reject information sent your way, the person who spoke to you is likely to feel personally rejected and quite possibly also annoyed. Tension between you is likely to rise — goodbye harmony and love!
In sum, ineffective listening halts the flow of collaborative dialogue. Like a stick in a bicycle wheel, ineffective listening brings cooperative conversations to a halt. The conversation may continue in action, but they will feel like a tug of war or a debate instead of like two people co-creating mutual understanding.
Use these pro-skills to watch (and hear!) your relationship thrive.
This article originally appeared on YourTango.com: Do You Listen Like A Therapist In Your Relationship?.