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How to Be a Better Listener in 4 Simple Steps

Your Relationship
November 23, 2020

It can be so easy to get lost in the positive message of making ourselves heard. Often times in today's culture, we forget about the strength that comes from the quiet, humble skill of listening.

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Listening is underrated. Our culture emphasizes using our voices, speaking up, making ourselves heard — which, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for. But it can be easy to get lost in this message and forget about the strength that comes from the quiet, humble skill of listening. 

When it comes to difficult or emotionally charged conversations, it’s important to know when to listen and when to speak up. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference, especially in heavy conversations. But even if the conversation stays light, we have all been that person who spouts off a lengthy series of advice and solutions without realizing that our spouse just wanted to vent. Whoops. There’s nothing wrong with giving advice, but sometimes our spouse just wants to be heard. So how can we be that person for our partner? We need to be more than partners who just hear our spouse’s words, and become really good listeners. 

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

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1. Empathize first

The first skill to implement in our listening journey is empathy. For many people, empathy is not our first inclination after hearing what a partner has to say, but it should be. Depending on the conversation (or if you’re like me), our first instinct may be to defend ourselves (nooo!!) or go straight into solving the other person’s problem. I’ve been there; I’m not shaming anyone. However, if we are going straight to defensiveness or problem solving, it is likely our partner will feel completely missed, and we miss an important opportunity for connection. Choosing to start with empathy is what builds trust with the other person and lets them know, I see you, and I care about what you are saying. Empathy is how we show that care because it is a completely selfless skill. The key is to keep in mind how a partner is feeling after they’ve shared, and to reflect it back to them. Here are some helpful phrases that demonstrate empathy: 

“That sounds really challenging. I’m sorry your boss treated you that way.”

“I would be really upset too, if I were you.”

“I hear how hurt you are right now, and it hurts me too.”

“It sounds like you are feeling ___________, and that makes me sad too.”

The moment we are able to put aside our feelings and our needs, we make space for the feelings of our partner, making them feel accepted and seen. This forms a stronger connection between us, builds trust, and opens our partner up to experience safety with us. It tells them, I am choosing to care about your emotions instead of mine right now; there is space for you here. 

2. Repeat back what you learned

Once a partner has finished expressing their side in a conversation we can demonstrate deeper understanding by repeating back the principles of what they’ve shared to check our understanding. This is a common technique in couples therapy, with the goal of showing that a spouse was earnestly tracking with what was said and not just thinking about their own response or feelings. This strategy is especially helpful in heavy or emotionally charged conversations, because it helps to assure our spouse that we understand the meaning of their words. It both helps us to relax, and diffuses tension because our spouse can rest in knowing that their message has been correctly heard and interpreted. 

The way to start this, is by summarizing the main points of what a spouse has said and repeating it back to them in your own words. If the conversation is particularly lengthy, you may want to ask your spouse to pause at times, so you can summarize shorter sections. After having stated your understanding of their message, ask the spouse if your summary was accurate. If it was, then continue on in the conversation, and if not, ask them to help you understand and try again. 

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3. Ask questions

To be a good active listener we have to show interest in what the other person is saying. Think about the times you’ve been on a first date. How did you find out about that person? If you liked them, you probably asked questions to find out what kind of music they like or where they’re from. If the date went well, hopefully they asked you questions back and you both got to know each other better. Now, imagine if neither person was interested enough to ask a single question — it may end up being a very short date that you go home later to laugh about with your friends. 

An easy way to show interest in what a partner is saying is to ask questions after they have shared. Not only does this show you are engaging with them, but it shows that you want to go deeper and gain further understanding. This communicates that you value the other person because, at our core, all of us long to be valued enough to be deeply known. Some examples include: 

Can you tell me more about the emotions you’re feeling?

When did you first start to feel this way? 

Can you explain more about __________, I want to understand better.

Was there something I could have done differently? 

What would your ideal outcome be here?

What was that experience like for you?

What do you need from me in this situation?

Asking questions does not only help us to understand the other person, but it also helps our partner to feel loved and important to us. Any type of question that helps us understand the other is good. If you are in doubt of what your partner needs from you, the best way to find out is to ask them!  

4. Offer comfort, opinions or apologies

It can sometimes be difficult to judge what a partner needs from us in response to their sharing, but it is important to offer some type of response after a conversation. Our listening response has the power to validate our partner’s choice to share and make them feel more comfortable to share with us in the future. To simplify, a good listener can give three possible responses that depend on the context of the conversation: comfort, opinions, or apologies. 

Comfort: Offering comfort to a spouse is important if they are sharing about a particularly emotional or vulnerable subject. If we see that a spouse is hurt, we want to show them that we care about their feelings. We do this by comforting, which can look different for each couple. The type of comfort your spouse may want ultimately depends on their personality as well as what they are feeling. If you are unsure what would comfort your spouse during a heavy moment, the best way to find out is to ask them. Here are some examples of ways to comfort a spouse:

Speak encouragement about a tough time.

Hold your spouse in your arms or rub their back.  

Make them their favorite comforting food or drink. 

Complement them for their efforts.

Opinions: If a spouse is looking for advice or perspective, it is okay to offer your opinion on the situation, but be gracious. It is important to make sure not to shame a spouse by what is said, or make them feel criticized. If a spouse is asking for advice, do your best to offer a helpful opinion or solution to their problem. Do the best you can to stay positive and encouraging. If you are not sure what advice to give, empathize with them at the difficulty of their circumstances and let them know you will support them through this. 

One thing to remember when offering an opinion, is not to ever judge a spouse. Judging can look like criticizing a spouse's actions, assuming you would have performed better than them in the given situation, or feeling superior to your spouse based on their choices. All of these judgements will only bring division and distrust to the relationship. Judgement creates an unsafe place for sharing and communicates contempt to the other person. Plus, judging a spouse is never a fair act, as no one can truly judge what it feels like to be another person. 

Apologies: Perhaps the most difficult response as a listener is having to apologize. Most of us who grew up with siblings have given an apology that we didn’t really mean and possibly received one. If you are good at apologies then I commend you, because I can’t always say the same for myself. However, apologizing is an important task of a good listener because it repairs some of the damage when we have caused hurt. 

The encouragement I can offer here, is that if there is anything you can apologize for, do it. Why not be the person in the relationship who chooses to be quick to apologize? One of the reasons apologizing is so hard is because it hurts our pride, especially when we don’t think that we’ve done anything wrong. However, apologizing is not about having done something wrong, it is about expressing a feeling — a feeling of contrition for having caused pain to the person we love (whether unintentional or not). An apology does not always have to mean that someone is in the wrong, but merely that we regret hurting the other. At least we should be able to apologize for that, if nothing else (though usually I can apologize for more).  

Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash

The biggest sacrifice

We cannot thrive in a relationship if we don’t feel understood and valued; listening is key in creating those affirmative feelings and building trust. Being a good listener creates a deeper connection between spouses and is crucial to building a healthy, long-lasting relationship. 

After looking at the four steps I have laid out, it is clear that in order to be a good listener we must do something very difficult: we must choose to be selfless. I’m not underestimating the difficulty of this, because it is not easy. However, I’m asking us (myself included) to choose to put aside our own needs for a period of time, in order to meet the needs of the other. In doing that, we are trusting that eventually there will be a time for the other person to meet our needs, but that time is not yet. This is a great display of love for the other person; to be a good listener, sometimes you must sacrifice getting what you need in order to be there for the spouse who is sharing. Truly, this can only help us in our marriages, because the reality is that love does not survive under the mindset of, ME FIRST. 

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