Listening Better

Contributor: Ashley Neese
Photographer: Ashley Neese
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When we learn how to truly listen to our partners and support them with our undivided attention, it builds lasting intimacy. This bond helps us withstand life’s ups and downs. True intimacy is based on understanding and creating a space where both parties are acknowledged and heard.

Over the years many friends and clients have asked me: What is the most important aspect of communication? I always say learning how to listen well. So, I’ve pulled together an outline that walks you through the stages of listening during a conversation with your partner. These are the tools that have supported me and will hopefully help you become a better listener too.

Do you really listen?

It’s natural during a conversation to tune in and out of what the other person is saying. We do it all day long. Most of us have a tendency to be a bit preoccupied with our own thoughts much of the time. This can be especially true if the conversation is emotionally charged. Over time, this lack of being fully present can disrupt genuine communication and cause harm to relationships.

Think about a time you tried to confide in someone and they were distracted or not really paying attention. 

  • How did that make you feel?

  • Were you shut down emotionally afterwards or leave the conversation feeling badly about yourself?

  • Did you want to talk to them in the future about something close to your heart?

Now think about a time when your partner wanted to share something important with you. 

  • Were you listening with an open mind or were you thinking about how you were going to respond?

  • Was it challenging for you to sit still and give them your undivided attention?

  • When the conversation ended did you feel closer to your partner and grateful they chose to share?

We’ve all been the person who wasn’t heard and the one who didn’t listen. Learning how to pay attention to our partners and listen with a desire to support and understand them is the glue that holds relationships together. Here are some tips for becoming a better listener.

Pay attention
Are you able to listen while distracted? Chances are, probably not very well. One of the most genuine ways to show that you are invested in your partner is to give them your undivided attention as often as possible. It’s important to make listening to your partner a priority if you want the relationship to last. Take a little time to set down your phone, close your laptop screen, and look them in the eyes when they are talking. These simple suggestions will improve the way you communicate quickly and your partner will feel heard and valued.

Don’t interrupt
When you allow your partner to talk without commenting or interrupting, it gives them permission to fully express themselves. Sometimes it can take folks a while to put their words together, especially if you’re having a difficult conversation. Try your best to sit and listen without interjecting. It’s natural to want to help and offer advice, especially when someone is having a hard time. If it’s difficult for you not to talk, try using non-verbal cues to let the person know you are listening.

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Notice body language
While your partner is speaking, notice their facial expressions and gestures. Most of our communication happens through our body, not our verbal language. Watch your partner, and soak in as much information as you can about how they are feeling. These clues are going to give you a great deal of insight into how they communicate, ultimately building intimacy.

Get clear
When your partner has finished speaking, try paraphrasing what they said and repeat it back to them. This simple action shows you were listening. It also helps ensure there aren’t misunderstandings. If you are unsure about something, ask a clarifying question to understand your partner in a deeper way. Remember, this is about listening to your partner, not assuming you know what they mean.

Offer support
Lastly, ask them what they need from you. This is huge! Sometimes people want advice or an opinion, other times they just want to be heard and need you to be a sounding board. Let your partner decide what they need even when you think you know best! This is all part of building intimacy and really seeing who your partner is.

The key to listening well is being fully present. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh often says, “The greatest gift we can offer someone is our true presence.” Cultivating loving relationships begins with opening our hearts, minds, and ears to the person we have chosen to be with. Developing your listening techniques will be only help in all of your relationships moving forward.

If you’re ready for a challenge this week, experiment with a few of my tips for improving your listening abilities. Remember, learning a new set of skills takes commitment and practice. It’s not about doing it perfectly; it’s about showing up and being willing to improve. Start small and build from there—you will be amazed at the results!