Basic structure for listening

Taking time to listen and share with one another in any important relationship helps develop mutual understanding, empathy, closeness and trust.

In the most healthy relationships talking openly and listening to one another will take place naturally and on a regular basis just because it feels good to do so. It will also happen when one or both partners senses that something difficult or significant has happened, either for one of them or between them. This may have left tension or some level of upset that they will recognise needs addressing.

How to really listen well in your relationship

Truly listening is an art that some people seem to have a natural ability for while others need to learn. If it doesn't come easily or naturally for you and your partner to talk together then it may be helpful to learn a basic structure to get you back on track. This may seem contrived but it can help you slow down and take in what the other person is trying to communicate without your own needs, frustrations and opinions getting in the way.

If you both agree to give this a try, choose when and where to do it, set it up at a realistic, mutually agreeable time and choose an environment where you both feel comfortable and free from interruptions. You will probably only need around half an hour or so to start practising, though you could choose to continue for longer if that feels right to you both.

Basic structure for talking and listening

Start by remembering that:

Listening requires being quiet and focusing on consciously hearing, taking in and understanding what the other person is trying to communicate. To ensure that you are each doing this for one another agree on a short time limit of two - three minutes each for talking and listening. You will take turns to be either the talker or the listener. (It may be helpful to use a timer for this).

It’s important at first not to choose anything too emotional and currently difficult between you to give you a chance to practice the new way of hearing in itself rather than hoping to reach a resolution of a particular current issue. Leave that until you are used to this new way of listening and tackle it then. 

The first speaker talks about a subject that matters to them for the agreed length of time with the partner listening quietly, without interrupting and stops when the agreed time is up. 

The listener then takes the same amount of time to feedback a summary of what they've heard, or think they understood the talker to be saying, checking that they've understood it correctly, perhaps saying "have I got that right?" 

It's important that the talker agrees with the summary - "Yes that's exactly it" or "No, I didn't mean it quite like you're saying it, that's not the word I used….it was more like this etc.” If the talker does not agree with the way the listener summarised what they've said it's important they repeat what they intended to communicate and that the listener once again tries reflecting back to them what they'd said, until it's done to the talker's satisfaction before you carry on. 

Then you swap over and the listener gets the chance to talk for two - three minutes and the previous talker becomes the listener following the same format. Once again, time the period of talking, stop and the listener feeds back a summary of what they've heard - or think they've heard - and checks out with the speaker whether they've got this right before continuing on

You can then swap over again and continue the same way, perhaps just one more time to see whether it's become easier for you both. Then discuss how it felt to listen and be listened to in this way.

If you are able to do this in the right spirit of openness this format can quickly lead to a sense of relief at being heard and understood and can improve the feeling of empathy between you. Perhaps you can go on to use it as a basis for talking and listening together in a less structured, more relaxed and natural way.

However, if your subject matter still turns out to be too conflictual, and emotionally painful it may be more difficult. You may need to abandon that topic and try a simpler one or, if that feels too difficult, take a break from the practise and come back to it later. There may well be deeper issues which are getting in the way and which may be harder to express easily between you and resolve on your own. If this is the case it may be useful to seek help with this.

Listening also involves:

Showing respect and affirmation about what you have heard by:

  • Your non-verbal communication/body language such as: leaning towards the other person, nodding, smiling, sympathetic eye contact.
  • Appropriate and empathic verbal communication/sounds (“ummm…uh huh… yes of course”) making it clear in this way that you appreciate the other person's open sharing and how hard this may have been for them.
  • Showing interest by asking further questions and so encouraging your partner to open up and share more.
  • Finally always remembering the simple, follow-up question:

    "And how did that leave you feeling?”…… and/or "and how does that leave you feeling now?”.

Another good tip for listening is always to remain aware of the balance of the talking and listening that you do together. Does one of you have a tendency to dominate the conversation with the other always doing more of the listening? Can you remain conscious of this and try to make sure you each have roughly the same amount of time to talk and be heard?

There can, of course, be many reasons why listening well to our partners and indeed to other people in our lives doesn't happen. The most frequently cited would be time constraints and other practical daily life issues such as: child/elder care and work priorities, time spent apart, leisure and social commitments and other significant life interruptions. However “when there is a will there is a way” and by far the most significant barrier to talking and listening well to each other will undoubtedly be for emotional reasons.

Sharing our sensitive, painful and vulnerable feelings is quite rightly not something any of us will do unless we feel safe and trusting doing so.

We may consciously or unconsciously be extremely wary and defensive about revealing our more wounded sides and for good reason. We all need our defensive “fronts“ and indeed should not let these down unless it is safe to do so. Many of us will have suffered some degree of traumatic experiences in our earlier lives and will not have received the necessary caring response we should have had. This will of course rightly put us off opening up again.

Many couples, even after years of being together have still not shared some of their most significant experiences and sensitive feelings with one another. It's not always necessary to do so and relationships can work quite well without this. However if one or other of you do want to open up more and develop the emotional connection between you then giving and receiving in the right way is all-important.

Receiving someone's pain requires conscious attention and awareness of yourself and your partner as a whole person. In other words, acting with emotional intelligence which is something that can be developed. 

On a practical/behavioural level this could include:

  • An acknowledgement of feelings in yourself and/or in your partner that are likely to be there following an event or from what you have sensed, even if those feelings haven't yet been expressed.
  • Doing this in a way that allows for expression and sharing of feelings at a time when it is possible
  • Acknowledgement of the difficulties of doing this, i.e. opening up and communicating a willingness to set time aside for this.
  • Expressing this acknowledgement in a gentle way, perhaps using affection or eye contact, and other appropriate empathic signals and direct verbal phrases. An example of this might be “I can see that this has been difficult for you” 

This will help your partner feel that it might be possible to be brave and take the risk of opening up to you at some point. If and when they do use good listening skills do as best you can to be supportive to them throughout the process.

Your partner is likely to greatly appreciate you being there for them in this way and having had a good sharing/listening experience is then more likely to be able to reciprocate and offer you a good listening experience at some point. 

This is how good emotional connectedness develops between people.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Phoebe Fuller BACP(Sr Acc): individuals and couples

Phoebe Fuller: BACP senior accredited counsellor/psychotherapist works with both individuals and couples. Over twenty-five years experience in a variety of settings including the health service, student and staff counselling, large companies and private practice.… Read more

Written by Phoebe Fuller BACP(Sr Acc): individuals and couples

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