If you’ve ever heard, “You don’t listen,” when you are engaged in a conflict with your spouse, remember that listening is a learned skill – and it’s not one that many of us do well. However, becoming a more engaged, present listener is something we can improve on over time, and it can bring much-needed healing and growth to our relationships.
To become a better listener, active listening is key. Active listening can be defined as listening with all your senses and letting the other person know that he/she has your full attention. It also shows that you respect the other person.
Ways to Become a More Active, Present Listener
Even if we think we are good listeners, we can always learn more. Here are some ways to be a more active, present listener:
Stop and face your spouse. Try to stop what you are doing or about to do. Face your spouse and make consistent eye contact. Let him or her know that you are listening with your facial awareness and attentiveness.
Remove distractions. Attempt to pause or forget about what you were thinking of before the conversation started. If you were making a grocery list, move it out of the way so that you can’t see it. If you were about to work on the car, trust that it will still be waiting for you after the conversation is over.
Pay attention to your overall demeanor. Even if it’s not intentional, your body will express how you feel, and could be perceived a certain way. If your arms are crossed, uncross them. If you are fidgeting or drumming on the table, gently place your opposite hand over the hand that fidgets. Your body language will express to your spouse that he or she has your full attention.
Make sure your spouse has paused before you speak. It is common to jump in with a defense or an explanation (or even an “I’m sorry”) before your spouse has finished sharing. Even when you think it’s a good time to comment or ask a question, take a 1-2-second pause. If your spouse is truly finished or waiting for you to speak, it will be clear. Then, you can share your thoughts.
Ask open-ended questions. To convey your desire to hear and understand, ask questions that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. If your spouse is sharing about a favorite pastime or an activity he or she wants to do with you, try to ask something that encourages him or her to further explain.
For example, if your spouse is talking about a fishing trip he or she has planned, you might ask, “What is it that you enjoy most about fishing?” This lets him or her know that you sincerely value what he or she is saying.
Don’t plan out your next defense or your answer while he/she is still speaking. This serves two purposes: First, it helps you stay engaged in hearing your spouse’s words and visible body language, and second, it helps you to stay focused on and understand his or her side of things, and not jump to a conclusion or a defense.
Repeat what you’ve heard before sharing your thoughts. Letting your spouse know you were listening is important. This can be done during the conversation with a warm “uh-huh” or “okay.” But it can also be shown when your spouse finishes or takes a pause. You might say, “So if I am hearing you correctly, you are telling me ….” or, “I think I hear you saying…” or, “Do you mean that …?”
This allows your spouse to correct where you may have misjudged part of what he or she said or misunderstood. It also allows him or her to clarify his or her expectations, which is an important relational skill.
After you have clarified what you heard, try to speak in “I” statements. Launching into a conversation with “you” can feel attacking to the listener. Instead, try to phrase your point of view with sentences that express how you feel.
An example might be, “I feel discouraged when you keep adding to my list of to-do items after I have already completed the first few things on the list. I appreciate it when I can stop and take a break without feeling like I am letting you down.”
Ask questions to clarify expectations. In case your spouse didn’t clearly state what he or she expects, you can use the end of the conversation to clarify. You might ask, “What can I do to make sure we are on the same page?” Or you can say, “I’d like to make sure we have agreed-upon expectations. Let’s go over those together. What is it exactly that you’d like me to do?”
Ask your spouse how he or she feels at the end of the conversation. Make sure that your spouse feels cared about and valued before you move on to your next action. This can be a simple hug with a quick, “Are you okay?” or it can be more specific. “How did I make you feel when I listened just now? Is there anything else you’d like me to know before we go about the rest of our day?”
While all these techniques won’t be done perfectly, having them in your listening toolkit can go a long way over time. Your spouse will feel more heard, valued, and cared for, and you will better understand and know how to nurture him or her.
These strategies can help not only in your marriage but also with children and in the workplace. If you are looking for more active listening examples or articles related to listening, use the search feature on this site. We have more resources that can help you become a more present listener.
“Talking”, Courtesy of Etienne Boulanger, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Friendship”, Courtesy of Zoe, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Table and Chairs”, Courtesy of Tabitha Turner, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Green Ferns”, Courtesy of Daniil Silantev, Unsplash.com, CC0 License