Listening Isn’t As Easy As It Seems

In all relationships, an important part of effective communication involves trying to understand where the other person is coming from and what they are feeling.  Thus, when communicating with your partner, children, friends, or colleagues, listening is often more important than talking.  Listening is not as easy as it seems; with a few useful tips and practice, however, we can all improve our ability to be good listeners.

The first rule of thumb for being a good listener is to be “active.”  Listening involves maintaining focus and attention and keeping your mind open to what the person is saying. Even if we do not agree with the person’s message, communication can be more productive when we listen with our full attention and respect.

Second, after you hear the person’s message, check in to make sure you understand exactly what he/she is trying to communicate.  This may involve asking clarifying questions about anything you do not understand.  It also may involve restating what you heard to make sure you understand the message correctly and that you didn’t miss anything.  In addition to listening for facts, also listen for feelings. As we begin to figure out what facts and feelings are being communicated to us, it can be useful to check in again to make sure we are on track.  When we assume what other people are thinking or feeling without checking in, we risk misunderstandings, arguments, and failed communication.

Third, good listeners present themselves in an open and inviting manner.  To be a good listener, stay aware of your body language (e.g., arms crossed vs. arms open) and maintain good eye contact.  It also is important to create an environment that supports effective listening.  For instance, avoid distractions (e.g., turn off the television) and pick a good time for the conversation.  If you are not ready for an important discussion, such as if you are in a bad mood or something else is on your mind, let the other person know that you would like to listen but that it would probably be best to identify another time for the conversation.

Lastly, do not interrupt the speaker. Allow the person to finish what they are saying and keep listening the whole time.  Many of us start to formulate our responses while the other person is still talking; this can backfire because we do not always hear everything they are saying and/or we come across as disrespectful.

Effective communication is the cornerstone of supportive, understanding, healthy relationships.  When you are able to listen and truly understand what your partner, children, friends or colleagues are saying, it paves the way for good communication and, ultimately, stronger relationships.

Kelly H. Theis, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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