How to Be A Great Listener... The Basics

Basic Listening Skills Are Simple, Right?

Do you know how to listen to someone? Really listen? It seems simple, right? Well, not always. If you've been in a relationship for a while, you may fall into the bad habit of "half-listening" to your partner.

Maybe you've stopped asking them questions about how they're doing. For example, maybe it's the end of the day, when you're cooking dinner or doing chores. Maybe you're putting the kids to bed, or you're feeling burned out from a stressful day at work. What a perfect time to "unload" by talking to your partner, and vice versa.

Most of us know the importance of spending time with your partner, listening to each other, knowing what's going on in each other's lives (like any best friend would know) and being supportive of one another. In healthy relationships, as a partner, it's your job to help your partner create an oasis with you from the world. By truly listening and giving each other your undivided attention, you're sending the message, "I'm always here for you" and "I want to know you" and "I care about you".

The common Pitfalls of Ineffective Listening

When it comes to listening to our partner, what's supposed to happen, and what actually happens, are sometimes two very different things. You forget your basic listening skills, which are the basic components of emotional intelligence. Some people have never learned how to just listen to another person. They've only ever learned to have a conversation that resembles a ping-pong match, back and forth but never listening, where both people are broadcasting their thoughts and feelings, but there's not necessarily someone on the receiving end. 

It's unfortunate that we're often better at listening with complete strangers than we are with people we know well.  Although listening is critical to any relationship, it's easy to forget, too. Sometimes we know exactly what we're doing, but make excuses, and justify de-prioritizing our partner. We may think, "I know she really wants me to listen to her right now, but I'm tired... and the game is about to come on". It's easy to take our partner for granted, and to "zone out" instead of "tuning in".

You may mistakenly assume, "I don't want to ask them questions... I know what they're going to say before they say it." Unfortunately, if you're thinking this way, this is a sign of a superiority complex. It's a very destructive attitude that does nothing but destroy relationships. Conversely, being continuously open-minded and curious about your partner builds up a relationship.

The Importance of Listening

You get what you give. If you listen well, you're investing in your relationship's emotional bank account, and you are more likely to create a relationship in which love, intimacy, and trust develop.  It necessitates really listening to our partners, which is not as easy as it sounds. You need to ask the right questions, empathize, and make your partner feel understood. 

We naturally do it when we're falling in love---we can't get enough of what they're saying. We attentively listen and ask questions. We want to know everything about them! But this should stay consistent throughout the lifespan of a relationship, or the relationship will wither away.

Listening is a skill

Like any other skill, listening can be cultivated through practice. If you aren't sure how to be a good listener, or you've simply forgotten how and need a refresher, I'd like to share some tips with you. Being a great listener is essential to any relationship, especially if you want to foster intimacy, understanding, and connection.

To help you learn how to do this, I recommend that you periodically take your partner's emotional "pulse". You'll ask questions like, "How have you been today?" but not just out of politeness. Do it because you really want to know who your partner is. They're an ever-evolving person who was not the same person you met, nor will they be the same person in a year, 5 years, or 20 years, for that matter. Try asking a few open ended questions every night, and then eventually it becomes natural to do more regularly in your relationship. It shows you care and that you want to listen to whatever they have to say.

How To Be A Great Listener:

Step 1: Focus on Your Partner

Put the focus on your partner, and away from yourself. Whatever happened to you today, it can wait until it's your "turn" later. Put it on the backburner. Listen and be genuinely interested, to whatever your partner is feeling or thinking. If you aren't in a good place to listen, go take a moment to self-soothe but eventually come back to your partner and tell them you want to listen. 

Step 2: Be Present

Respectfully and non-judgmentally be present with them, no matter how intensely or painful their feelings. JUST LISTEN! Don't try to make them feel better or give advice, just ask questions and show empathy. Don't jump into problem solving, criticism, defensiveness, or superiority.

Step 3: Summarize

Summarize back to them what you heard them say, to show that you were listening and that you are trying to get it. Whem someone reflects back our feelings, we feel more understood, heard, and loved. This type of validation is critical to intimacy. It shows that you're just trying to "be there" for them. Swooping in to give advice, make a suggestion, or make them laugh can minimize what they're feeling and make them resent you. Now is not the time to take sides with whomever else they're talking about. Take their side by being present and validating how they feel, although you might not fully agree with their logic or thoughts. 

Example validating phrases:

"I hear what you're saying..."

"It makes sense why you'd feel this way, because..."

"I hear you saying that my mother can be  mean. She's been like that with me before. I totally understand why she made you mad last week. She's really ticked me off in the past, too". 

Final Thoughts

Whatever your partner is going through, take time whenever you can to just listen to them. Let them know that if they're in pain, the world stops and they matter more than anyone else. Communicate "I'm here for you, whatever you're going through, whatever you're feeling, whatever you're thinking". 





Stephanie Cook

Stephanie Cook, LCSW, is an Atlanta area therapist and owner of a private psychotherapy practice, Counseling ATL, LLC, located in Decatur, an in-town suburb of Atlanta, GA. She has expertise providing counseling to individuals, couples, and families and primarily specializes in work with young adults and couples