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Are you listening to respond or listening to understand?

In my work as a couples counselor, a lot of my time in sessions is spent improving listening skills. People often say they are great at communication but forget that listening is just as important as the words spoken. When we listen to respond we are taking points from the speaker and thinking about and developing our response. But when we do that we aren’t really focusing on the speaker. We are distracted and may miss what they are saying. We also tend to jump right into our response when they stop speaking. This doesn’t show the speaker that we heard what was said or even that we understood it. This can lead to the speaker feeling unheard and unimportant and can frustrate them.

When we use the Gottman Method, a lot of the interventions we deploy focus on becoming better listeners for each other. Research has found that 69% of conflict in relationships is about perpetual problems. These are the problems you discuss over and over again and can make you feel like you are stuck. If you struggle with perpetual problems in your relationship, working on listening skills can help you get through your gridlock.

Here are some tips for listening to understand:

  • Put your agenda aside. (Try not to think about your feelings at this point.)

  • Focus on the speaker as if you are a reporter and trying to get the story. (Pretend you have to write an article about this without recording it.)

  • Suspend judgment and disagreement for the time being. (You can still understand something you disagree with.)

  • Don’t minimize your partner’s feelings. (Let them experience their own reactions.)

  • Focus on gaining your partner’s perspective and not your own. (Knowing them, how does this make them feel? How does this fit with their worldview?)

  • Ask open-ended, clarifying questions to deepen your understanding. (“Can you explain to me why you feel hurt?” or “How does this relate to your values?”)

  • When the speaker is done, summarize what they’ve said and check for understanding. (“So what I’ve heard you say is…” and “Did I get that right?”)

  • You can communicate understanding by providing validation or empathy. (“Knowing how you feel, it makes sense to me why you reacted that way.”)

Once you utilize your listening-to-understand skills, then you can take your turn as speaker. Your partner will be much more open to listening to your perspective after they’ve felt heard and understood.

It can take time and practice to improve listening skills. A good tip for practice is to try picking a neutral topic to discuss and take turns listening to understand.

If you struggle with getting through conflict on your own it’s always a good idea to reach out to a counselor for help. They can help you navigate through conversations using good communication skills and taking a break if things get overheated.

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