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The art of listening in relationships

It’s safe to say that most of us are interested in the quality of our lives. But what we may not remember are the following two ideas:

  1. The quality of our lives depends largely on the quality of our relationships.
  2. To a large extent, the quality of our relationships depend on the quality of our communication.

I’ve stated my belief on communication before – in a committed relationship, you can not not communicate. The real issue is — how do you handle the messages sent between you? Especially the ones involving messages you don’t like, or ones with which you disagree.

While I still fully believe this, for the purposes of this post, “communication” is referring to the actual practices of speaking and listeningIt’s through speaking and listening that you can dramatically improve the quality of your relationships, and your life.

See the payoffs in listening well

If you desire a happier life and marriage, then listening well is one of the best ways to get what you want. Through listening, you learn. It will help you discover options and solve a wide variety of problems.

All you have to do is listen.

Remember – communication at best is difficult

The English language is filled with words that are easily misinterpreted and muddled. All you have to do is place the emphasis on a different word in a sentence, and you change its meaning. Not to mention the various definitions of some words – like chair (something you sit on, the leader of a board of directors, or even the metal block that supports and holds railroad tracks).

While being a clear speaker in your conversations will help, being a better listener will help even more.

Marital conversations, especially when heated or tense, often disintegrate into parallel monologues. The conversation reaches a point where neither person is listening to the other, yet each person continues trying to get their point across.

Enter the world of listening.

It’s easy to cross the line from listening to speaking. I know you’ve been there; a friend begins telling you how their vacation went and you interrupt, “That sounds great, just like the time our family went to the beach and …” The conversation just shifted away from them and back to you. Your story became more important than theirs.

Here’s a few ideas to help you become a better listener.

Listen to yourself listen

Listening to yourself requires paying close attention. Instead of mentally preparing a response or the message you are going to send, practice fully receiving the message already heading towards you.

Take note of your internal distractions. You know, the times you feel rushed or when the other person is turning a simple story into an epic drama and you’re losing interest. Or perhaps you’re involved in one conversation at the coffee shop but actually listening to the conversation taking place in the booth behind you.

By listening to yourself listen, you can find tactful ways to disengage yourself from the conversation when you are distracted and not fully present and listening. Honesty is often the best policy. Say something like, “Listen Mary, that sounds like a fascinating story, but right now I’m a bit distracted. I’m concerned about my parent’s health and I’d like to call and find out how they’re doing. I’d like to hear this story when I can really listen, so can we talk a little later in the day?”

When truly listening, it pays to either be genuine or be gone.

Photo by Sharon Mollerus

Use silence and postpone your response

The typical conversation is like a tennis match. One person serves, the other returns. There’s very little time wasted in the conversation.  Use silence and postpone your response, which will slow down the conversation. It allows you to fully hear the other person and then appropriately respond. It helps ensure that both of you are more present and heard.

In conversations that are emotional and tense, silence is a tremendous gift. It allows all involved time to think, reflect, and breathe.

Remember that understanding is not agreeing

Listening means receiving an accurate version of the message being sent. Listening also means you gain an insight into the other person’s point of view. Once you understand the message the other person sends, you are then free to respond in any way you choose.  And one possible response is to disagree.

Understanding and agreeing are two different things.

As a better listener, you can fully hear other ideas and opinions and then respond appropriately and calmly. As a general rule – until people feel understood, they are less likely to be willing to invest much energy in trying to understand you. And when you don’t feel understood, you’re less likely to invest in trying to understand someone else.

Try it out. Take some time in your next conversations and practice being a better listener. Then let us know how it goes.

What can you add to this idea of becoming a better listener? I’m all ears.

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  1. Alyson

    Good advice. I do have a problem with jumping into conversations before they are finished…. let me count to ten…… Silence is an excellent tool.

    Alyzabeth’s Mommy for Eleven Months
    .-= Alyson´s last blog ..September 1st……Tattoos? =-.

  2. Nora

    Repeating or ask something about what your partner just said usually works well to.

    I wondered how do you handle it when there are more than two persons involved in a conversation?
    When I’m with my Mom, Grandma and other family members conversation always comes to the point where everybody is talking an every other minute somebody says: “Let me finish my sentence!”
    I would really like to work on this but sometimes it seems like this way of talking has become some strange family tradition…
    .-= Nora´s last blog .. =-.

    • Corey - Simple Marriage

      Communication definitely has some intergenerational trends and patterns. When you’re with your family, you could be the one to break tradition and speak less and more succinctly. If you listen more and only speak when you can deepen the conversation, you’ll break the pattern a bit.
      .-= Corey – Simple Marriage´s last blog ..Breathe. =-.

  3. steadymom

    I think you’re so right, Tsh, and yet listening can be SO hard. My husband has quite an intense job (directs an NGO working to abolish child sex trafficking), and often when he comes home he just needs to download in conversation all the burdens he is carrying from the day.

    It’s a choice on my part to focus and listen (& sometimes I don’t make the right choice, especially if I’m thinking about the challenges of MY day with three little people!).

    It comes down to choosing selflessness. Hard, but worth it.

    .-= steadymom´s last blog ..What Do You Think? – "Mommy, I’m Scared!" =-.

  4. Lanie

    Another great post. I often times find myself defensive and shooting right back when having a conversation with my husband. Next time, I’ll try to listen more to what he is saying and hold off my responses. Thanks for the advice.
    .-= Lanie´s last blog ..Speaking candidly… Let’s Talk…Period =-.

  5. Jessalyn

    Great post! I have many times found myself running through thoughts in my own head while talking to other people, trying to get my responce ready. I have also had to battle this while praying with other people. when I first became a Christian I was so worried about what other people thought about my prayers that I would be shaping and beautifying mine while they prayed theirs. The Lord revealed my pride and pretension in this and has continued to work on me in the area. How selfish and self centered we can be!
    .-= Jessalyn´s last blog ..Crumbs on the Toaster =-.

    • Corey - Simple Marriage

      Jessalyn- Want to try something out of the norm in your prayer life with others? Rather than taking turns with each other praying (as is often the norm), make it conversational. When a friend is praying, listen to their prayer and if something stirs in you and you want to add to it, speak up and add it.

      You may want to give them a heads up before you start the prayer time but it has made prayer more conversational and flowing in my experience.
      .-= Corey – Simple Marriage´s last blog ..Breathe. =-.

      • Jessalyn

        That is a cool idea Corey! Thanks, I could see that being really beneficial when my husband and I are praying together.
        .-= Jessalyn´s last blog ..The Miracle of God =-.

  6. Emma @

    I agree with Lanie. I often take the things he says the wring way and find them offensive, and in the end it turns out he didn’t mean it like that. Before you decide to fight back, make sure you’re actually being attacked.
    .-= Emma @´s last blog ..Defending your parenting choices. =-.

  7. Elli

    Thank you for sharing this today. Communicating with people has really been on my mind lately (read: having people HEAR me), and this helped shift my focus from what I’m not GETTING to what I’m not DOING. I needed this!
    .-= Elli´s last blog ..Day 310 =-.

  8. Tiffany

    My husband and I learned a valuable (and funny) lesson on communication a few months after we were married. I was telling him that we could save those little pieces of soap left over in the shower and use them to get out stains by putting them into an old piece of hose (meaning panty hose) and then rubbing it on the stained clothes. My husband could not figure out how this would work. I kept saying it over and over, louder and louder, thinking he was a lot dumber than I thought. Finally, he said, “how can you put soap in a garden hose?” We ended up laughing together until tears were streaming down our faces! 21 years later, we still try to communicate clearly with each other so we don’t repeat that kind of conversation.
    .-= Tiffany´s last blog ..Homemade Pesto Sauce without a Food Processor =-.

  9. Hairstyles For Girls

    What a great post! I love the quote about silence being a gift. Sometimes it’s nice to talk to someone and not have them give you any advice back, ya know? I need to work on that, (keeping my mouth shut) especially with my kids. 🙂
    .-= Hairstyles For Girls´s last blog ..Giveaway! Win a $25 Gift Certificate For Hair Accessories! =-.

  10. Kimber

    Great post! I find that my hubby says he is listening & can even tell me word for word what we just talked about but give him a day or two he forgets everything and tells me I never said that. Most times I just dismiss it but once a month every month we go over the same thing in our budget and he always tells me I never said that & it is always the same every month… He does not pay attention and does not retain our talks. This leads into some big fights which does not help anything. Now if we were talking about hunting or racing he remembers every detail about that no matter how long ago it was. What can I do to stop this from happening all the time especially at out budget meetings. I am at the end of my rope with all this!

    • Corey - Simple Marriage

      The only thing you can do in times like this is be very clear- perhaps even write down the major things you discuss in your budget, etc. and then if he forgets because he wasn’t really listening, you can refer back to what was written calmly. If you become less reactive- he’ll become less reactive in time.

      Best of luck.
      .-= Corey – Simple Marriage´s last blog ..Breathe. =-.

  11. Asha

    Thanks so much Corey. This is one of the best posts I have read. Something I need to practice. While I generally enjoy listening to my husband, with my kids I often find that I am waiting to jump the gun before they are finished – and usually its an order about something entirely different.
    Thanks again!

  12. Stacy (Mama-Om)

    Thanks for this article — respectful communication has been something I have been working on, both with my spouse and also with my children.

    Lately, I have been inspired to practice more silence in my days — with my kids, I have what I call “begin with silence” days, where I try to start the day, and all my interactions, with the intention of silence. It makes a huge difference in the energy of our home, and my children really enjoy it. Really! I wrote about it here.

    As you’ve pointed out, being heard is so crucial and not feeling heard is often the sticking point in our tense or unsatisfying conversations. One thing that has me with is nonviolent communication. It encompasses all the points you’ve touched on here… giving us tools to help us listen to what people are saying by identifying the feelings and needs beneath the words. I wrote about using it with my young son here.

    I still have so much to learn — thank you for giving me more ideas!

    .-= Stacy (Mama-Om)´s last blog ..The broken cars are still there. The buddha is gone. =-.

  13. Amanda

    I have a problem with interrupting…especially when the discussion is heated. I printed this out and gave a copy to my husband. Maybe we’ll both be able to learn something from it. 😉
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Introduction to Routines =-.

  14. Angelita

    This is a great topic, communication and relationship is the most problems anywhere, even in business, family, motherhood etc. I could say, don’t block you mind when listening, listening at the same time understanding, there are persons that has an automatic answer in everything that you are telling them, we have different ideas in mind, even we are in the same place at the same time, we have the same experiences.

  15. Jenn @ Beautiful Calling

    I starred this in my reader because I didn’t have time to really read it when you first posted it. I am glad I waited so I could full focus on what you were saying. (like you talked about LOL)
    I know often I am guilty of interupting a story with my own or preparing my response while the other person is talking. Eeek!
    Two things I will be working on!
    Thanks for sharing!
    .-= Jenn @ Beautiful Calling´s last blog ..TUT: Healthier You Links =-.

  16. Laurie

    I have a very difficult time not being distracted with my thoughts or things going on around me when I am listening (or attempting to) my spouse or a friend, etc. I struggle with it so much that I am considering having testing for ADD. It’s embarrassing and frustrating. I have tried to keep my eyes on the person speaking and that is helping but I am not where I need or want to be.

  17. Laurie

    I have a very difficult time not being distracted with my thoughts or things going on around me when I am listening (or attempting to) my spouse or a friend, etc. I struggle with it so much that I am considering having testing for ADD. It’s embarrassing and frustrating. I have tried to keep my eyes on the person speaking and that is helping but I am not where I need or want to be.

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