From a broad standpoint, the concept of communication as the key to success in a relationship, whether is it a romantic relationship or something else, is pretty universally acknowledged. However, the umbrella of “communicating” with another person covers a lot and many people mistakenly assume that communicating simply means talking more.
However, the most important way that you can communicate with your partner or anyone else is the exact opposite. It’s listening.
Not just any kind of listening, though. Good communication requires active listening.
Active listening is an important skill in effective communication of any sort, but especially in intimate relationships. Understanding what active listening is as well as how to hone your skills is therefore essential in making any relationship stronger through good communication.
What Is Active Listening and Why Is It So Hard?
In its most simple sense, active listening is both and action and a skill rooted in empathy.
Rather than simply waiting for his or her turn to talk, the active listener concentrates on the other person’s words and makes a concerted effort to understand and relate to what he or she is saying as well as what feelings may be contributing to those words.
As a society, our active listening skills seem to be deteriorating at breakneck speed. As Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, points out in a 2012 Psychology Today article:
It’s possible that social media are causing many people to lose their focusing ability. Traditionally, the average listener requires a shift in stimulation after about 20 minutes. However, with rapid-fire messages coming everywhere from Facebook to Twitter to push notifications from online games, many people require a shift in stimulation after perhaps as short as 20 seconds.
Given the pace of our lives and the incredible demands on our attention that are near-constant, it is no wonder that this inability to focus bleeds over into our personal lives, degrading our relationships.
Whitbourne cites a study by Christopher Gearhart and Graham Bodie which further posits that those with poor active empathetic listening skills also have poorer social and emotional sensitivity, further damaging their potential for successful, long term personal relationships.
How to Enhance Your Active Listening Skills
If the key to communication in relationships is active listening, it makes sense that honing your active listening skills is likewise essential. There are several ways that individuals and couples can do this in order to enhance their relationship-specific communication as well as their communication with people in general each day. Among these strategies, two, specific methods stick out:
- Asking Questions
Rather than explaining yourself or adding to your partner’s conversation, ask them to further explain their statements. This will not only clarify your partner’s feelings, preventing you from jumping to conclusions regarding intent, but it also allows you to further empathize with the “whys” of your partner’s statements and emotions.
- Summarize or Recap
When your partner is done speaking, take time to summarize or recap what they just said in order to make sure you fully understand the intent of their message. This not only displays to your partner that you were listening, but it works further to increase empathy and clarification.
When you actively listen to another person, you will be surprised at how easy it is to relate to their struggles and understand their concerns or issues. This, in turn, reduces unnecessary argument as well as allows you to work through problems rather than talk over them.
Finally, when you actively listen to your partner, it is important to understand the listener’s role — to listen. This means that you may not need to add anything (i.e., talk) at all. It also means that it is not your job to “fix” a problem, but rather ask questions and help them to find their own solution.
By understanding the importance of active listening and working to consciously improve your own active listening skills within your relationships, you will be surprised at how much closer you feel to people and how much easier it is to solve conflict.
Indeed, the heart of good communication in relationships lies on the receiving end.