In times of need, fewer things bring more comfort to us than someone who truly listens. In theory, we all know listening is an important aspect of communication and emotional closeness. However, it isn’t always as easy as expected in the heat of the moment. We want to be there for our loved ones and be made to feel like we are a participant in their moments of joy and sorrow. More often than not, many of us fall into the trap of interrupting, judging and listening to respond as opposed to listening for the sake of understanding.
Without necessarily meaning to, the mistakes of not listening fully can have negative effects on the moment and on the relationship in general. During a heart to heart conversation, not being as focused as you could be may lead to a lack of closeness. If shallow conversations are consistently practiced because of being unable to process the underlying meanings behind situations, shallowness may become commonplace. Intimacy and listening go hand-in-hand. You cannot have one without the other. Likewise, if someone you love is constantly interrupted, ignored, or dismissed when sharing their feelings with you, they are likely to feel distrustful of you as a source of intimacy. If they feel unsafe to share their feelings, they will gradually refuse to do so. The speaker may also feel unworthy of your attention and undervalued in the relationship. During times of hardship, this is felt more acutely with even stronger feelings of loneliness since they can’t talk without being judged.
We can all agree that these negative consequences are the last things we want for our relationships. Luckily, learning to listen is a simple skill that can be developed with time and practice. Here are some simple and effective habits to form that will undoubtedly yield relational benefits.
- Maintain eye contact. We have all had experiences where someone is looking elsewhere when we’re trying to convey valuable information. Maintaining appropriate eye contact is the first thing that will convey to the speaker that you’re listening and care about what they’re saying. This goes for every social interaction from a loved one, to a supervisor at work, to a retail worker. Eye contact is the gateway for respect.
- Observe the speaker’s body language and tone of voice. Studies show that as much as 60 to 90 percent of communication is non-verbal. This includes tone of voice, word choice, someone’s posture, their gestures, facial expressions, and other physical identifiers. Challenge yourself to be a detective and search for meanings within particular posture and facial expression. If someone says they’re doing “fine” but their posture is slack and their eyes are downturned, what are they really trying to say?
- Try to decipher the underlying mood. What emotions do you see underneath their words and gestures? Do they match? Their emotional state can dictate how you respond. If the speaker says you didn’t hurt their feelings over an argument, but they’re speaking slower, avoiding eye contact, and start to tear up, what emotion would they be conveying? Try to see yourself as their mirror. After identifying an emotion or a mix of emotions, how you respond can make all the difference.
- Ask open-ended questions. Who, what, when, where, why, and how are your best tools for further exploration. If someone expresses that they had a bad day at work, it is far better to respond by mirroring their reactions and explore further by saying “Oh no, that’s terrible. What happened today?” A simple response like that could make the speaker feel validated and safe to state what’s on their mind. Compare that to a response of “So, you had a bad day, huh? Hm, that sucks,” while ending the conversation there. The speaker would feel more like a burden to bring up the details of their day since the listener just shut down the conversation. Likewise, questions that end in “yes” or “no” answers do little for exploration and may feel more like an interrogation to the speaker.
- Avoid judgments and interruptions. The one communication error that occurs more often than needed is interrupting. Rudely interrupting someone and judging the speaker’s perspective are often intertwined. If judgment occurs, then it’s more likely you would feel tempted to interrupt to get your point across. For example, if a friend said that they had a bad day at work because they didn’t get the promotion they were hoping for, the last thing you’d want to do is respond “Well, why not? What did you do wrong?” before they’ve been able to finish their thought. Always allow the person to complete their thought on their own terms. If there is an unintentional interruption, apologize and allow them the space to continue. Unsurprisingly to many women, this communication faux pas is more commonly seen in men. Researchers found in several studies that males are 33% more likely to interrupt female speakers.
- Listen to understand, rather than to respond. There are countless conversations had where we focus far more on what we will say next as opposed to listening to what the person is saying. There need never be shame or awkwardness when someone finishes a thought and you pause for a few moments afterward. Your more thoughtful response would be far more appreciated than a quick meaningless one.
We all value good listeners in our lives: someone we can turn to when there’s a burden that needs to be lifted or when a simple conversation needs to take place. We know we deserve respect from our own listeners, so it should be non-negotiable to extend that same courtesy to those who trust us with their thoughts. Practicing the art of listening may take time and patience. But, with a little effort, insight, and self-reflection, improving your listening skills can allow your closest relationships to bloom like never before.