It’s true – us humans have an average attention span of just eight seconds. But there are ways to improve this, and at the same time, become a good listener when you’re speaking with the important people in your life – especially your partner.
Really listening to each other can be really hard sometimes. Modern life places so many demands on us, and at any one time, we seem to have a million things competing for our attention, including technology, work, hobbies, friends and kids.
But for a number of reasons, really listening when we’re speaking with our partners seems to be particularly difficult. Emotions run high because we care about them so much, and we tend to only half listen while we formulate our response in our heads – often in the form of a rebuttal if the topic is difficult.
This often leads to both of us feeling unheard, blamed and defensive, and can lead to communication breakdowns which could have otherwise been avoided.
Why good listening is so important
It seems basic, but being a great listener – and not necessarily a good talker – truly is the key to being a good communicator, and communicating well is a crucial skill for all couples to learn.
Being able to listen well helps us understand each other better, feel closer and more connected to each other, and ultimately helps us avoid unnecessary conflict – and helps us resolve it more effectively when it does inevitably arise.
Skills for being a more effective listener
Below are a few tips that can help you develop your skills in active listening and start fostering better communication patterns in your relationship.
Stop whatever you’re doing if possible, switch off the TV, don’t pick up your phone, and try to find a moment alone together to talk.
Use body language and verbal cues
Lean in a bit, make eye contact, smile and nod sometimes to encourage your partner to continue, and try and keep your posture open and interested.
Allow your partner to finish their point before jumping in with comments or your side of the story. Sometimes, our mind tends to pinpoint and fixate on anything our partner may be saying that we disagree with. But rather than allowing that to cloud our minds and effectively drown out whatever they say after that, take a pause and let them finish.
Ask questions to help them clarify
Before providing feedback, ask questions if you need more information, and ask them to clarify if there is anything you’re not sure you understand.
Summarise and repeat back what they’ve said
After they’ve finished making their point, try to paraphrase to your partner what you think you have heard them say. See if you can do this in a tentative, questioning, tone that is a check-in and allows for the possibility that you may have misunderstood. This is not an opportunity to respond with a passive aggressive “so let me get this straight…”
Activity: Practicing effective, deep listening
Below is an activity that we frequently give couples to practice in the therapy room. We ask them to go away and practice in their own time, separately first (with a friend or family member), then together. It can help you develop skills in using active and deep listening, and help you find ways to reconnect.
When you’re learning any new skill, consistency and repetition is important. So, set yourself this exercise and intentionally practice at least once a week for the next couple of months.
Time Commitment: 20-30 minutes
Preparation: You will need a family member, friend, or when you’re ready, your partner to do this activity with. Ask them to think of 2 different activities, hobbies, holidays or topics they are passionate and would enjoy talking about. You also need to think of two topics.
1. Ask your partner to talk about one of their chosen topics for 3 minutes. During this time, your role is to listen and practice the skills below:
- Make clear eye contact
- Lean in a bit and try and keep an open posture
- Smile and nod appropriately to encourage them to continue to talk
- When your inner voice kicks in and you want to talk or ask a question, tap your knee 3 times and remain silent.
2. When your partner has finished talking for 3 minutes ask any clarifying questions you may have.
3. Summarise what you have heard them tell you using a tentative, questioning tone. It is important that you work hard to not add any of your own thoughts, responses or feelings.
4. Encourage your partner to clarify, respond and fill in anything significant that they think you may have missed.
5. If you are doing this exercise with your partner, swap roles.
6. Once you have both had a turn at listening deeply while the other speaks for 3 minutes try the same exercise speaking for 5 minutes using the second chosen topic.
With continued practice, you can become a great listener
Remember that ultimately, being able to listen to another person, interpret what they’re saying, and truly understand the meaning behind the words they’re telling you, is a crucial skill that will help you out in all areas of your life – not just with your partner, but with your friends, and at work as well. With continued practice, you can continue improving your listening skills, and build deeper, more trusting connections and relationships with those around you.