How to listen better in your relationships

At the start of Paula Fox's novel, Poor George, the narrator asks, 'Who listens?' Perhaps the prospects of being listened to aren't quite as bleak as that in real-life, yet few people would claim that good listeners are easily found; and, if they themselves were being candid, they'd have to admit that their own listening skills were far from being expert.

Listening attentively is a crucial dimension of how well we relate to others, because it is a key aspect of treating others with respect as a human being rather than as an object (you don't, after all, listen to your table); just as important, listening attentively is necessary in order to understand others better (colloquially 'where they are coming from'), so that we can get closer to them emotionally and resolve any conflicts that may arise.

Here are a few ways to improve your listening skills:

1) Professional counsellors are encouraged to develop an attitude of acceptance towards how their clients are, because a non-judgmental atmosphere allows people to explore how they really feel, and to understand better why they are behaving in ways that are not always helpful for them in their relationships.

Now, this attitude is perhaps easier for a counsellor to adopt than for a partner in a tense relationship, as the counsellor is not directly related to the person and so emotions are not riding as high. However, I would still contend that trying, as much as possible, to bracket off your judgments while listening to another helps everyone all round, because rattling off your judgments and accusations only makes the person more defensive. And when they become defensive, you are not gaining any understanding of what is going on.

So how do you do this in practice? I believe that a helpful attitude is to say to yourself 'S/he has got a good reason for behaving this way, and if I listen attentively enough, I'll probably find out why they are being that way'.

Now don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that you should agree with the other or come to like their attitude or their behaviour. Rather what I'm saying is that if you are open enough to the other and listen attentively enough, you increase your chances of understanding their point of view. Even if you don't like their behaviour, it makes sense to them, and any constructive resolution has to arise from both sides feeling that their point of view has been taken into account. Assuming beforehand that they have a good reason for why they are behaving the way they are helps create a conducive atmosphere for understanding them.

2) If we were asking a friend about a movie, we might say, 'What was it about?' They may then recount the plot. If we were in a more interrogatory and exploratory mood, we might then inquire, 'What was it really about?' This would be a request for a discussion of theme (i.e. the underlying meaning/ideas in the film).

When we listen to others, it would be naivety to assume that if we were able to recount in exact detail what someone else has said that we have then listened to them. Nobody wants a tape recorder rendition of what they have said, as that is not genuine listening, but a mere exercise in memory.

Instead, genuine listening involves listening for subtext-the underlying meaning of what someone has said. Good listeners listen with the 'third ear' as they look for what has been not said but implied.

Here's an example: Speaker: I was standing at the enquiry desk at the supermarket and was waiting while the person was on the phone. Then when they put the phone down, they ending up serving someone else! I was before that person in the queue.

Listener: I can see that this really annoyed you and I can imagine you felt disrespected and ignored. How frustrating!

Notice that the listener has referred to aspects of the situation that weren't explicitly mentioned by the speaker.

So listening for subtext means looking for implied meanings and feelings and reflecting them back tentatively to the other person. You won't always get this right, but at least the person will then amend what you are saying and you'll get a better idea of how they really feel. Either way, you are helping them also getting a better idea of what is going on for them.

3) We've all had arguments where we've found out later that we actually agreed with the other, and that an argument could've been avoided. What has happened in this case is both sides have not tried to understand the other's point of view enough.

One technique that can help you understand another's position and your own is as follows:

Once a conversation about an issue has got started, each side will do two things: a) before they articulate their reply, they will briefly summarize what the other has said and let the other verify or amend their summary: b) once they have received that verification from the other, they will then articulate their own point of view. They take turns in doing this.

This might seem stilted and it will, at first, seem strange and unnatural, but once you get the hang of it, you will minimize misunderstandings between yourself and others, and you will be able to resolve conflicts better (providing, of course, both sides agree to practice the approach).

If it is the case that you have tried listening to your partner or other loved one, and you still feel that you need more understanding about what is going for you, then making an appointment with an impartial, professional listener (i.e. a counsellor) can make a difference to your life.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Dundee DD1 & St. Andrews KY16
Written by Dr Alexander Fox, (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))
Dundee DD1 & St. Andrews KY16

I am a pluralistic counsellor in private practice in the city centre of Dundee. I am trained to help clients with a wide variety of problems and I am able to employ a number of different therapeutic approaches so that the therapy process is always tailored to the individual needs of each of my clients.

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