Most clients enter therapy believing that they are pretty good at listening to one another, to their children, friends, extended family, coworkers and bosses. After a couple of sessions, clients begin to understand that this skill, called “listening,” is deceptively difficult. Many arguments, confrontations and hurt feelings occur because of what we think another person said; yet, when we slow down enough to check out what we think we heard, we are often sorely mistaken. We may not have any idea of how to demonstrate good listening skills; however, all of us know in a heartbeat when we are being truly heard.

Even when we do get it right, the intent of what the other person said often gets lost in translation. Here is a wonderful example that women sometimes use: the one-word response, “fine.” Now, that one word carries many possible meanings — almost any meaning, except that things are truly satisfactory. If you are a woman, you probably already know all the possible meanings of the response, “fine.” If you are a man, you are probably better off not knowing.

I am going to give you some tools that will improve your listening skills. Why would you want to become a better listener? When the people with whom you interact feel heard, it changes the trajectory of your relationship with that person. There is a felt sense of being valued, loved and of being a priority in your life. There are less arguments and hurt feelings — less yelling, nagging, repetition and negativity. The relationship that you have with that person becomes more supportive, loving and peaceful.

Keep in mind that learning to be a great listener is a skill that requires practice, practice and more practice. At first, these tools will seem artificial, awkward and even silly; however, with practice, these methods will become more natural. If you play golf and you are gifted with a lesson with a golf pro who coaches you to hold the club differently, your grip is going to feel awkward. If you follow the pro’s suggestions, hang in there and stick with it, you may find that the new grip straightens out your slice.

Now for those tools:

  1. Look interested. Turn toward your partner, make eye contact, put down your phone, turn off the TV or your music. Get your back channels going strong; nod your head, use verbal confirmations (“yes,” “I see,” “uh huh,” etc.).
  2. Keep the focus on your partner. Postpone your own agenda and shift the focus away from yourself.
  3. Use active listening. You want to say to your partner, “OK, let me make sure that I am hearing you correctly” or “Here’s what I heard you say.” If you make a mistake, your partner will correct you. It is always a good idea to say, “Did I miss anything?” or “Is there anything else you would like me to know?” If your partner corrects your listening attempt, repeat that information back to them. Keep in mind, you want to reflect your partner’s emotions, as well as the content, of what they said.
  4. Validate your partner’s emotions. Validation does not mean that you agree with your partner. It does not mean that you believe that they are right. Try saying, “It makes absolute sense, based on what you just told me, that you would feel hurt about that incident.” It is the polar opposite of saying, “You shouldn’t feel that way” or “Don’t be upset.”
  5. Do not try to solve the problem for them. Do not offer advice until they feel completely heard and understood; understanding should always precede advice.
  6. Offer an expression of empathy. “No wonder you are upset!” “You must feel so helpless,” “Wow, that must have hurt!” or “That would have hurt my feelings, too.” Be careful to give empathy and not sympathy. Sympathy means feeling sorry for the other person, showing pity (for example, “You poor baby! What you need is a warm bath!”). When we feel sorry for someone, it is as if we are reaching down to give them a handout. Empathy is coming alongside the other person. Empathy feels wonderful and empowering, whereas sympathy cripples the recipient and usually makes them angry.
  7. Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions do not have “yes” or “no” answers; they have paragraphs of answers. “What do you wish for?” or “Tell me more about that.”
  8. Communicate respect. Avoid being judgmental or critical.
  9. Questions to ask when your partner experiences anger, sadness or fear:
    1. Anger: “What are your concerns?” or “Help me understand what this means to you.”
    2. Sadness: “Talk to me, honey. I want to hear more about how you feel so I can understand it.”
    3. Fear: “What happened to make you feel unsafe?” or “How can I be helpful to you?”
  10. Ask your partner if they feel completely understood. When your partner says they feel heard and understood completely, it will then be your turn to respond to your partner’s communication.

Once you have used all these steps, you and your partner will have succeeded in slowing down the conversation. You will be responding, rather than reacting, to one another. Conflict discussions will become opportunities to learn more about, and bond with, your partner.