As therapists, we are professional listeners. How would you like some tips from the pros on how to improve your listening skills and in the process, improve your relationship? Ready?
1. Be Willing to Spend Some Time (It’s Your Relationship!)
If you really want to be in this relationship, you have to invest some time. That’s not always convenient, but let’s face it one of the two teams is going to win, the couple on TV is going to get the open concept kitchen, and you are never going to catch all the characters in Pokemon Go. If you are truly busy, set up a time to talk but then be sure to follow up. This is not something just to try to ‘get through,’ this is an investment in building a better future together.
2. Don’t Try to Fix Anything, Just Listen
This can be hard, but a lot of times there is no easy fix for a situation. Trying to give advice is often (1) wrong (2) more about getting away from your discomfort at hearing about the difficulty (3) is not helpful and (4) makes the person feel like they are even more alone. They are asking you to listen. Also, most likely they have already thought of it, and a couple of the implications of immediately offering advice are: you are not too smart, and I can’t tolerate hearing about this (again, leaving the person alone). The good news is, very often a person just needs to be heard. That can be a very moving experience!
3. Really Listen
That means, giving your undivided attention to what your partner is talking about. This is not a time for multitasking. What would you think if your therapist was taking calls, browsing the web, or texting with a colleague? Yep, same thing. Listening means I take you seriously, you are important to me, I care about what is on your mind. This simple act alone can significantly help a relationship.
This might be hard if your partner is talking to you about you, or a problem in the relationship. But, this is the time you can improve the relationship – listen and try to remain non-defensive. You both might grow, and your relationship might significantly improve.
4. Ask Questions to Help You Keep on Track
Are there too many names in the story? Are there a lot of details. As a quick question of your partner to get back on track with him or her. “Sorry, Jane is the one in HR?” Super easy, and it will keep you involved.
5. Ask Deepening Questions
OK, here is the therapists’ cliche, “How did that make you feel?” Why ask that? Well for many reasons. One reason to ask is that we know people defend against feelings. We also know emotions are an important part of how we experience and understand the world. We also know that thinking and feeling often do not go hand-in-hand, particularly during difficult times – when defenses are most likely occurring. Both of you may come to a deeper understanding of the situation by asking questions which help deepen the conversation. This can improve your sense of connection in the relationship.
6. Ask Open-Ended Questions
Stay away from questions which call for a simple yes or no answer. You are likely only to shut down the conversation. Here are some sample open-ended questions:
“How did you feel when your boss…?”
“What came to mind when…?”
7. Make Mental Notes
If you can’t recall any of the conversation, that’s going to be a bigger problem. Remembering someone shows you care about them. As a partner, it shows you are keeping them in your mind and your heart. This is a fundamental aspect of being in a relationship. Think of how it would have felt if a parent forgot important details of your life.
8. Avoid Psycho-Babble
Seems ironic? Actually, more seasoned and skilled therapists tend to stay away from jargon as well. It can have the effect of creating distance. Either your partner will go into his or her head trying to think of what the meaning of the jargon is, or it can seem to reduce your partner and his/her experience to ‘been there, done that.”
9. How Does That Make You Feel?
In this case, how do you as the listener feel? An important part of good story telling is to create a feeling (or feelings) in the listener. As your partner is telling you his or her story, what feelings are you experiencing? Is she telling you about her employee and you feel angry, but she seems calm? Sometimes people are not aware of their feelings. For example, if your partner is telling you something about her employee and you feel angry on her behalf, but she seems not to be aware, you might say something like, “I might feel really angry in that situation.” (Despite the fact that we all have our own psychologies, it might help her get in touch with some complicated feelings – have permission for those feelings). In this case, you are using your experience to try to understand the story at a deeper level.
10. Be Real
If you adopt a therapist-like attitude, it will only say “You are broken” and “I’m going to fix you.” Be as real as you can allow yourself to be, but make sure you give your partner room to express herself or himself.
11. BONUS! Don’t Make it All About You
What ever you do, don’t jump into your partner’s story with a story about your experience. If he or she has something to tell you or share, don’t take the opportunity to make the story all about you. Some people have a hard time resisting. ‘That happened to you!? Listen to what happened to ME!” Ever seen anyone appreciate that? OK, that’s the point.
12. BONUS! Recognize the Importance of the Trust and Intimacy in Talking Deeply.
How amazing is it that you and your partner are talking deeply about your lives? How often does that happen in other relationships? Usually, this is a rare situation and one that you should acknowledge. If you and your partner talk openly, truly listen and seek to gain a better understanding of each other – solely for the sake of getting close – you are off to a great start (even if the relationship is not new – all the better)!
13. BONUS! Unlike a Therapist, Don’t Try to Make Transference Interpretations
A therapist who is trained in understanding the unconscious connections a person might make from the present situation to influential past situations has had years of training in understanding the connections. If you are listening as a partner, but trying to use these skills then stepping into the role of therapist you are very likely to create distance. You also have to beware of the temptation to make links about the unconscious as a way of blaming your partner or showing you are better. “I wonder if you are reacting to me like you do your mother” is a hard thing to hear unless there is a lot of agreement about how it is going to be used.