How to really listen
Most couples who come to counselling want to improve their communication. I always explore in what way could communication be improved? When were they at their best in communicating? The answers vary greatly and there is much confusion on what good communication looks like.
Commnunication is about making connection. It is not talking “at” someone, but dialoging “with” them. Good communication takes a sender and a receiver, with a balance of give and take, talk and listen. This applies to all relationships, with family, children, friends and co-workers.To promote genuine relationship connections consider the following.
If you are the sender – the first consideration is to have your partner’s full attention and ensure now is a good time. Rushing out, just before bed or while the Hockey finals or Skate Canada are on television is not likely to produce the desired result. Set the stage, get agreement, let your partner know why it is important to you to have this conversation. Use positive terms. Instead of “we need to talk” - the most dreaded four words by most men in relationships. Try “I’d really like to connect with you” or “there’s something important I need to share with you”. Use a soft start-up. Speak from your genuine need and experience. Demands, accusations and blaming will only lead to defensiveness, shut-down or tit for tat.
Part of the sender’s job is to understand how the message is being sent and received. It is important to go at the right speed for your listener, and make sure they have heard and understood what you intended. Avoid long monologues, check in with them frequently to allow them to respond to what you have just said.
The listener’s job is to be attentive, open and non-judgmental, trying to truly understand from the sender’s perspective what they are trying to transmit, what they are needing from this conversation. You also need to tune into and feel your own internal reaction to the content you are hearing. How is it impacting on you? What don’t you understand? What is important to the sender?.
Choose kindness: I am mindful of the values and qualities I want myself and my children to practice. It is helpful when I get up in the morning to set my intention for the day: I will be kind to myself and others today. This primes the pump. When in doubt, ask: what is the kindest thing I can do for my child and myself. At the end of the day celebrate my success and notice when I lost my mindfulness of kindness so I can face that obstacle another way next time.
As the listener it helps to maintain a conversational tone, inquiring with curiosity, showing interest, keeping eye contact and physical proximity. Make sure to acknowledge and validate what your partner is saying about his/her experience. Your job is not to agree or disagree with them, nor to give advice. If there is common ground or agreement, acknowledge that. Do not move the focus to yourself. Moments of silence are okay. Let your loved one gather their thoughts and don’t be accumulating how you want to respond.
Immediacy: I find that many people who don’t know how to respond to their partner as a listener, actually have a useful internal dialogue that is helpful to share. Admitting you are confused creates an opportunity for clarification. Being honest about how you are struggling to understand or stating that you are afraid of saying the wrong things gives you time to refocus, be present and hopefully the sender will extend grace, clarify or correct misunderstandings.
If things go off the rails, if there is hurt or misunderstanding, it is important to stop action and clean up what just happened. If either of you becomes too stressed or escalated to stay calm and connected it is better to take a break and agree when you will come back and continue the conversation. For some people it might take a couple of hours. Do not pursue the person if they say they need a break. But you can always offer or request a hug and encouragement and willingness to try again later.