Six Essential Practices to Improve Listening Skills in Relationships

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

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The qualities that make a good listener may seem obvious, but they can be quite nuanced. It’s a delicate balance of receiving and reciprocating—taking information and giving attention and care. The way we listen shapes the conversation as much as the way we speak or respond. Consider the old saying: if a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? It’s a mindbender that leads us down multiple philosophical pathways involving object permanence and the human impulse to center our own experiences. If I don’t perceive it, does it cease to exist? Of course not. Unlike most riddles, this one has an easy and obvious resolution. So why has it endured for so long? Why do we continue to pose this question? 

It’s because this little nature-inspired conundrum isn’t about the answer. It’s about going down those philosophical pathways. Inside of this question, there’s a poignant commentary about relationships and the reciprocity required to be in one. The tree doesn’t just make a sound; it shakes the earth. And how we respond to those vibrations shapes the experience for tree and man. Was it cut down? Was it healthy? Was it dying? Did it crush anything below? Do we need to clear the debris to make way for new growth or does it need to be left alone? And what does any of this have to do with listening skills in relationships? 

1. Understand the Difference Between Hearing and Listening

No matter the type of relationship—romantic, platonic, familial, or collegial—actively showing that we are listening to the other person validates their experience and their vulnerability. It’s not enough to say “I’m hearing you.” Whether we are sharing a story, a greivance, a need, a want, or even a desire, nothing makes us feel more deeply connected than when we are engaged in a healthy balance of thoughtful speaking and hardcore listening. 

Try this essential practice: Invite the other to engage in a little assessment. Keep it light and be kind. Ask each other: 

  • What time of day do we tend to have our best conversations?
  • What is a tell tale sign that my attention is fading?
  • Show me the face I make when I’m really listening to you intently.

2. Go Back to the Beginning

From the time we are young, we’re told “use your words.” The current Western norm emphasizes direct communication and the ability to clearly articulate one’s needs as an essential step to building confidence and self-esteem. It’s interesting, isn’t it? We make a point of encouraging one another to be assertive—speak up! Communicate! Advocate for yourself! Yell it from the mountain tops!—but we don’t quite prioritize listening in the same way. 

Try this essential practice: Ask each other…

  • As a kid, how could you tell when an adult was taking you seriously?
  • Do you have any memories of realizing that you were funny because of how people reacted to your storytelling?
  • What were you taught at home and in school about listening?

3. Take Your Finger Off the Rebuttal Button

Couples researcher and therapist, Howard Markman, has said that when we listen to something we don’t agree with, we have a capacity of ten seconds before the rebuttal button gets pushed. That’s about three sentences before we interrupt with our defense. Even if we don’t interrupt, we begin making mental notes of everything we want to refute when it’s “our turn.” 

Try this essential practice: 

  • We tend to talk about our feelings as if they are facts, which can turn dialogue into debate. 
  • Instead of listening for flaws or counter-arguments; listen to understand. 
  • Instead of focusing on being right, focus on what may be right about what the other person is saying.

4. Explore Reflective Listening Skills

Developed by Harville Hendrix, PhD, and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD, Imago Dialogue is a three step process of reflective listening that focuses on Mirroring, Validation, and Empathy. When we engage in Imago Dialogue, we agree to have a conversation in a judgement-free zone with the understanding that each person’s point of view is valid. This type of inquisitive listening—and the way that the speaker gives direct feedback to the listener—completely changes the dynamic.

Try this essential practice: 

  • Invite the other to dialogue about a specific subject. Start with something benign.
  • Speak from I and me (I feel…. What’s bothering me….)
  • The listener will mirror the speaker by saying “Let me see if I understand. You’re staying X. Did I get that right?” 
  • The speaker will then say “yes, you did” or “you got some of it.”
  • The listener will then ask “is there more?”
  • The listener will validate the speaker by saying phrases such as “what you’ve said makes sense.”
  • The listener will empathize by sharing what they imagine the other person may be feeling. 
  • Switch roles.

5. Read Aloud to Each Other

In a 1974 seminar, psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm offered six rules for listening, three of which are below: 

  1. “[They] must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were [their] own.”
  2. “The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love [them] — not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to [them] and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.”
  3. “Understanding and loving are inseparable. If they are separate, it is a cerebral process and the door to essential understanding remains closed.”

Try this essential practice: Fromm’s entire seminar was eventually published as a book called The Art of Listening. Buy or borrow a copy from your local library and carve out a few minutes each week to read a different rule aloud to each other. As each person reads a passage, the other can practice deep listening. You can choose simply to listen or to discuss it afterward. 

6. Ask New Questions About Old Stories

A unique form of communication is joint storytelling. When we listen to a couple tell the story of how they met, how they got engaged, the birth of their child, a trip they took together, a disaster they survived, we learn about their history, their dynamic, and the parts of those experiences that have made them who they are. We can also learn a lot from the details that get left out, misremembered, or forgotten until the right question shakes the memory loose. 

Try this essential practice: 

  • Ask each other to retell an old story from a different point of view—how would a stranger in the background tell the story?
  • What are the dominant colors, scents, and textures you remember from the original experience?
  • What do you think the other person involved in the story would have noticed about the setting that you would not have? Why?
  • If the experience hadn’t happened, how might the rest of the day unfolded?
  • What negative aspects of the experience are you grateful for now? Why?
  • How would the experience be different if you were the age you are now?
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