Can you hear me now?
No doubt you have heard about the importance of being a good listener your entire life. However, knowing its value and doing so effectively are two completely different things. Listening, and truly hearing what your spouse or partner has to say takes skill and effort. Not being a good listener can lead to miscommunication and relationship problems. There’s always room for improvement when it comes to being a good listener, and in the long run, nothing is more important than that to maintain healthy communication in any relationship.
As obvious as it sounds, it is sometimes easier said than done. Sometimes your partner will want to talk when your mind is already going in a dozen different directions and focusing on the conversation feels nearly impossible. Maybe you are distracted by an important project at work, the score of a big basketball game on TV or a million other things. Whatever it is, if your attention is too compromised at that moment, speak up. Plan for a time to talk later, and then do what you need to do in order to listen well: Turn off your smart phone, computer and TV. Try to clear your head of distractions. We call this “being in the moment”—in this case, focusing on the person sitting in front of you and truly hearing what they have to say.
Listen at least as much as you talk
Another kind of distraction happens when we tune out our partner’s words because we are too busy trying coming up with our response before they’ve even finished talking. You are prepared to interrupt at any moment, and acting on that impulse can be a death knell to constructive conversation. If you find yourself getting angry and defensive, it may be hard to let your partner even complete a sentence without jumping in with a rebuttal. Nevertheless, think of it this way: your position is more likely to be heard in return if you first let them have their say.
Don’t offer what isn’t asked for
Refrain from offering unsolicited advice—with “unsolicited” being the operative word here. Maybe your partner had a fight with a sibling, friend or colleague and just needs to vent. Even if you think they are making a mountain out of a molehill, resist the urge to be dismissive as this will feel like you don’t find what they need to talk about as valid or worthy of your time. When they’re finished, ask if they want your opinion—if so, there’s nothing wrong with giving it, as long as you are respectful (i.e. “I can see why that was hurtful to you, but my guess is he/she didn’t mean to offend you, and by tomorrow you’ll both have forgotten about it.”)
Cut them some slack
Give your partner a little time and breathing room if they’re struggling to communicate their thoughts, concerns or needs – especially if the topic is emotional or directly concerns your relationship. If you feel you are being attacked by an aggressive tone and language, say so (calmly) —but try to refrain from retaliating with angry retorts of your own. Likewise, if you feel like he or she is bringing up ancient history that is not germane to the topic at hand, say that too. However, if you can try to steer the conversation back to a more productive back-and-forth, do so. Ask specific questions like, “I know that what happened last year was very painful for you, and I apologize for that. But what’s going on today that made you feel you had to bring it up again? Is something new concerning you that we can address together now?”
Another good strategy is to repeat back to your partner what you think they are trying to express and ask if you are getting it right. Use sentences starting with, “What I hear you saying is…” This shows your partner that you are really trying to understand, gives them the chance to clarify and even helps them stay focused on their true concerns.
Follow the Golden Rule
Finally, the golden rule of communication in general is to know when it is time to call for a temporary truce. When things get too heated, effective listening goes out the window. Agree to take a break for now and revisit the subject when cooler heads prevail.
If you’re struggling to communicate effectively in your relationship, please give us at a call at or schedule an appointment via our online calendar. We at the OC Relationship Center are here to help you.