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Active listening: What it is and how to do it

Good communication is at the heart of every successful relationship, and at the heart of communication is the ability to really listen

Posted: 4 October 2007
by Maria Muennich

Being a good listener is crucial to effective communication and is one of life's most important skills to develop. But listening is also something that many people find difficult, particularly if they come from a background of not being listened to themselves. And even for people who are good listeners, it can be something we too often neglect in dealing with our partners and other family members as family circumstances breed tiredness, impatience, frustration and assumption.

If communication with your partner does often seem stymied by argument and conflict then it might be time to put the spotlight on developing your active listening skills to help you understand each other better and use this as the basis for drawing up compromises or negotiating differences of opinion. At the very least, taking the time to actively listen to each other should make you both feel more valued and supported.

What is active listening?
Active listening is the skill of concentrating fully on what the person talking to you is saying and making sure that you have correctly understood their meaning. It's also about focussing your attention wholly on the speaker and what they are saying, rather than thinking about how you feel and what you would like to say. The aim of active listening is to improve mutual understanding and encourage honest discussion.

How do I actively listen?

  • Focus - You don't need to set aside special time for actively listening to your partner, but if this is a new skill for you then it will probably help to find some peaceful time where you will both be relatively undisturbed. Focus your attention fully on what your partner is saying, not just taking in the words, but observing tone and body language and searching for the meaning.

  • Be neutral - When actively listening it's important to suspend your judgement of what the other person is saying, even if what they say provokes feelings of hurt or anger. Try and keep on the track of your partner's thoughts and when they prompt thoughts and emotions of your own acknowledge them to yourself but then set them to one side so you can refocus entirely on the other person.

  • Don't pre-empt - When having a discussion it's often easy to think you know what your partner is trying to say, or how s/he feels. With active listening you don't try to anticipate or complete their sentences, but let your partner express themselves fully.

  • Paraphrase & interpret - To check that you've fully understood what your partner is saying paraphrase what you have just been told. You don't have to agree with what they are saying, but do acknowledge their position as valid. Concentrate too on the emotions behind what is said. As we're not usually very good at talking about our feelings your partner may not say that s/he is angry, upset or disappointed, but you can probably pick up his or her emotions indirectly.

    Again, recap to make sure you've read the signs correctly. For example "It sounds like you're feeling quite disappointed about the amount of time I spend at the office and angry that I expect you do to all the household jobs", or "You seem to be upset that we don't have as much time for each other any more and frustrated by how little we make love".

  • Don't react - When someone is telling you how they view a situation it can be very tempting to jump in with a reaction, particularly if you disagree with what's being said. But by contradicting your partner you put yourselves into defensive-agressive positions and onto the slippy slope to conflict. Try not to chip in with your view point but take time to understand and digest what the other person is saying.

  • Ask questions - You can encourage your partner to open up more fully and honestly and enable you to have a better understanding of what s/he's saying by asking non-aggressive questions. If there's an area you'd like him/her to expand upon then try formulating what they said about it as a question, for example, 'You say you don't feel you have enough time for yourself...'

And then what?
If you've really actively listened to your partner then you should both find it easier to work towards solutions together: Your partner will feel listened too and have his or her viewpoint accepted, even if you share it, and so will feel more understood and supported.

Listening objectively may also have helped you see your own actions, motivations and expectations in a more objective light. This is a good basis on which to move forward to making suggestions that take both of your needs and feelings into account, and you may even see some of the disagreements disappear as you open up communication.

Of course, active listening needs to go both ways, so try taking it in turns to be the listener. This may well all be too much in one session as listening like this requires a lot of energy and can be quite tiring, but try to schedule in another time soon after where you reverse roles. Active listening takes time and practice, so don't expect to get it right straight off, and don't be too disheartened if your talk dissolves into a mess of accusations, simple agree to pick up the talk at another time and try again.

If you can make active listening a regular part of your relationship your attitudes to each other can really change, as you enhance the spirit of compromise and mutual understanding. It can also have a beneficial effect on your everyday communication as you both become better listeners more generally, and lower the likelihood of misunderstandings.

The whole family can benefit from parents using active listening and, in fact, your listening skills should be improving naturally along with your daily efforts to decipher what your baby or young child is telling you. And don't forget that if you get on top of this skill now you'll reap the benefits in years to come as your little ones grow into independent-minded young adults!

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