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Listening to Understand Instead of Respond

As a couples therapist, a problem I see with every client is communication. More specifically, listening skills. Often, we may hear our partner’s words but not really know what it is they are saying or mean. Being a good listener means listening to understand instead of listening to respond. If we aren’t really listening then most of our communication is generally one-sided and we end up each having our own conversations. This often creates a lot of conflict in relationships.


How do I know I need to improve my listening? If you find that you often interrupt your partner or get impatient when they are speaking “too long,” you could benefit from being a better listener. Things you may hear your partner say are “You don’t get it," "You aren’t listening," "That's not what I said, I feel unimportant.” This can indicate a problem with deeper understanding, especially during conflict.


When we are interested and having a positive interaction, it can be easy to listen. When there has been conflict or the subject is boring, this is usually when our listening skills start to deteriorate.



  • Suspend our own agenda. You can’t really listen when you are focused on what you want to say.

  • Be interested. Take a genuine interest in how your partner is feeling in the situation, if what they are saying doesn’t make sense, tune in more.

  • Be a reporter. Focus enough that you would be able to write an article about it. Sometimes taking notes can help you focus.

  • Ask questions. This is part of being interested as well, when someone asks questions for understanding, you can tell they are invested in understanding.

  • Make eye contact. Don’t look at your phone, look away, or roll your eyes. Eye contact is a great way to physically show you are listening.

  • Use minimal encouragers. Instead of staying silent, add in some acknowledgment like “mmhmm, yes, ok, that makes sense” and head nodding.

  • Avoid judgment. Focus more on understanding their perspective, find out why it is they feel the way they do.

  • Avoid advice-giving. Your partner doesn’t necessarily need your help to figure it out. If they ask for advice, that is the best time to give it.

  • Avoid defensiveness. Focus on their perspective for the time being.

  • Breathe and self-soothe if you get overwhelmed or flooded. It’s ok to ask for a break if you need one.

  • Provide a summary before you respond and give them a chance to correct or add anything.

  • Find something to validate about your partner’s feelings.

  • Ask your partner if they feel understood. If not, ask what you are missing, and if so, now it is finally your turn to respond.


The takeaway is that listening is a very important part of communication. If you’ve experienced trouble with your communication or even if you haven’t, it can always be beneficial to work on your listening skills. There is nothing more pleasant and validating than feeling heard by somebody.


If you find you need a bit more help in your relationship, finding an effective counselor can be a good idea. Sometimes we need a neutral third party to guide us into understanding.

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