Therese and Steven are a young couple that’s been happily married for three and a half years, but the past six months have been quite difficult. Therese’s job has steadily required more from her, especially as her company had to downsize during the pandemic and they aren’t able to hire new people just yet. She’s often home quite late, and leaves early to get her day started. When she’s home, she feels tired and finds it hard to go out and have fun like she and Steven used to.
Steven is in graduate school, and his studies consume much of his time. He struggles to maintain boundaries, so he often finds himself helping others in his cohort with their work. The effect of that is that he sometimes falls behind and has to work extra hard to meet deadlines, and that puts pressure on any plans he may have made with Therese.
The last few months, it feels like they’ve been living alongside one another, and they both feel disconnected – emotionally, mentally, and physically. They had a big fight the other day because Steven had to cancel their date to submit an overdue assignment.
What angered Therese even more was that when she tried to talk to Steven about it, he was distracted and wasn’t paying attention to what she was saying. In that way, what started as a tiff about the canceled date escalated and became a bigger conversation about their relationship and how they had lost their intimacy as a couple.
Situations like that of Steven and Therese are quite common, even if the particulars differ somewhat. Couples and friends can find themselves feeling disconnected, and it’s not necessarily because they don’t care about one another.
When life gets busy and you find yourself under pressure, it raises the profile and the importance of good communication. One key component of good communication is effective listening. In essence, that’s what Therese and Steven needed from each other.
What is effective listening?
Despite our flattering perceptions of ourselves, most of us aren’t good listeners. There are several bad habits that we hardly ever question when it comes to how we listen and interact with others. Effective listening is a way of interacting with others that facilitates clear communication and fosters healthy relationships. When you’re an effective listener, you can pay attention to a person speaking, digest what they’re saying, and respond to what they’re saying appropriately.
That all seems easy, but it isn’t. Paying attention to what a person is saying can be a huge challenge, especially in our day with constant intrusions from emails, texts, and instant messages. We carry our distractions in our pockets, on our laps, and on our wrists, so it takes special effort to set these aside and pay careful attention to hear what’s being said.
For Steven, being busy working on an assignment split his attention between that and what Therese was saying to him. Having one eye on your laptop and the other on the person speaking is a recipe for poor listening.
Paying attention to what a person is saying involves more than hearing the words coming out of their mouths. It also involves paying attention to visual and other non-verbal cues that let you know what is being said and help you interpret it.
What a person is trying to say involves more than the words – if they hesitate or fall silent while they’re trying to say something, pay attention to that as it may indicate they’re unsure of themselves or are trying to tread carefully.
If they get louder or perhaps get more animated, that is usually a cue they are excited or otherwise passionate about the subject. Even things such as changing the subject, sitting away from you, looking down or away all form part of the overall message being communicated. An effective listener takes all of this into account.
Apart from paying attention and actively trying to absorb the information you’re being given, effective listening is about showing that you’re listening. One way to do that is by providing appropriate feedback to the speaker so that they know you’re listening, and their message has been received.
If your friend says something that on paper sounds funny, but they say it with a tone of voice that says they are serious and possibly feeling hurt, then the appropriate response isn’t guffawing, but perhaps leaning in and putting a hand on their shoulder. Effective listening is about showing the other person that they have been heard and understood.
If you don’t understand something, the best thing to do is to ask a good question. Asking good questions that help clarify what the other person means is a great way to show that you’re listening, and you’re invested in what they’re saying.
You want to know what they mean because what they mean is important enough to you to seek after it. Asking good questions that clarify and also reflect back their thoughts helps the other person know you were paying attention and absorbing what they were saying.
Another way of putting it is that effective listening is mindful listening. Being mindful is about being present in the moment rather than allowing yourself to be distracted and focus your attention elsewhere.
This effective listening can occur in a variety of circumstances including when an employer summarizes what her sales team has said during a staff meeting and asks them if she’s heard things correctly. It can also happen when a friend nods and says, “I hear you,” to encourage their friend to continue to talk about their traumatic experience.
How effective listening improves relationships.
Given how rare it is, being an effective listener is a great gift that you can share with your colleagues, friends, and loved ones. Many problems in relationships occur because there is a lack of mutual understanding which leads to needs not being met and conflicts escalating needlessly.
In whatever relationship situation, having a clearer picture of the needs and issues at play always helps. Being an effective listener helps you to ensure understanding, which helps immensely when it comes to resolving problems and conflict. Not only that but when you show a person that you care about them, it helps to build rapport and solidify a relationship. They can trust you because you’ve shown genuine concern about their opinions.
In situations such as at work, effective listening gives you the tools you need to better motivate others and inspire a higher level of commitment in the people you work with. When you know what makes people tick and how best to manage and motivate them, you’re placing yourself in a good position to be a successful leader.
If you’re in a leadership position, effective listening is one way for you to show concern for your team, and when you model it for them, you can potentially reduce interpersonal conflict as people are better able to hear one another out and make more meaningful compromises.
How to grow in your communication skills.
Growing any skill requires time and a lot of hard work practicing those skills. To grow into an effective listener requires acknowledging that you probably aren’t great at listening to begin with. Recognizing this allows you to start pinpointing some of the unhelpful habits that are present in everyday life. Some of these bad listening habits include:
- Interrupting others while they’re talking, or finishing their sentences for them
- Jumping to conclusions about what you think a person is going to say
- Judging the person you’re listening to and not letting them make their case
- Not summarizing what’s been said or seeking clarity when you’re unsure
When you know what those bad habits are and can identify how they manifest themselves in your daily patterns, you can begin replacing them with some of the effective listening skills shown above.
There are many benefits of effective listening in relationships, including improving the quality of those relationships by making your interactions more meaningful. Counseling can be a space where you practice effective listening skills, and that includes unlearning habits that make you a poor listener. You can go for individual counseling, where your counselor can serve as a model of effective listening, as they are trained to listen well to others.
Going for group counseling can also provide you with an opportunity to practice those effective listening skills as you share ideas with others in the group. If you desire richer relationships, successful conflict resolution, and meaningful connection with others, consider going for counseling to learn the skills to help you be an effective listener.
“Bayou”, Courtesy of Casey Horner, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Green Hills”, Courtesy of Qingbao Meng, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Waterfall”, Courtesy of Casey Horner, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Wilderness Lake”, Courtesy of Ales Krivec, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License