Effective Listening

Couple strolling down a sunny country lane

We all know that a cornerstone of successful relationships is good communication. Having just gone through a divorce, you are probably acutely aware of this fact. You know how painful it feels when communication goes wrong. One of the best things you can do for yourself in your post-divorce life is to strengthen your communication skills. Really being understood by another person is deeply gratifying, and improved communication will help you to build strong bonds and relationships in your new life.

In a paradoxical way, the heart of successfully communicating about your own wants, needs, and desires is learning, first, how to listen. Indeed, listening not only helps you understand the other person, but it helps the other person to understand you.

We all have the desire to feel heard and to know that others care enough to listen. When other people don’t seem to be listening, you may think it’s because they are stubborn or don’t understand what you are trying to say. Actually, they may feel that you are stubborn and you are not listening to them.

Listening with Authenticity and Curiosity

Before we talk about some good listening skills, it’s important to remember that the heart of good listening is authenticity. Authenticity means that you are listening because you are curious and you really care, not just because you are supposed to.

One thing that may disturb your curiosity and full attention to the other person is your internal voice—the commentator in your head. For example, when someone is talking, you may be thinking: “I can’t believe he thinks that about me!” “This isn’t my fault.” “I really want to go home now.”

How can you manage your internal voice? The following three ways are helpful:

Negotiate your way to curiosity. Remind yourself that understanding the other person is always harder than it seems. You can’t already understand how the other person feels or what he or she is trying to say. Consider the depth, complexities, contradictions, and nuances that make up the stories of each of our lives.

Express your internal voice. Sometimes when your internal feelings are too strong, it will be very hard to negotiate your way to curiosity. If this happens, you may need to say something like “I’m surprised to hear you say that. I think I disagree, but say more about how you see it,” or “I feel a little defensive now.” With that on the table, you can get back to listening.

Postpone the conversation. Sometimes you may find that you can neither listen nor talk. You may be too upset or confused or simply need to be doing something else. Rather than pay half attention to the other person, it’s better to say, “This is important to me, and I want to find a time to talk about it, but right now I’m not able to.”

Three Skills: Inquiry, Paraphrasing, and Acknowledgment

The three primary skills of good listening are inquiry, paraphrasing, and acknowledgment.

Inquire to learn. Ask questions to show your interest in what the other person is saying, but keep in mind that your questions will only help the conversation if you inquire with the purpose of learning.

  • Don’t use questions to disguise a statement. For example, don’t say “Is it impossible for you to focus on me just once?” Instead, it’s better to just say “I feel ignored” or “I want you to pay more attention to me.” Disguising a statement as a question will create confusion and resentment, since it is often heard as sarcastic and sometimes mean-spirited. If you want to share your feelings or make requests, do it directly.
  • Don’t use questions to persuade. For example, don’t say “You think this is my fault. But you’d agree that you made more mistakes than I did, wouldn’t you?” Instead of trying to learn, these questions aim at trying to persuade the other person that you are right and he or she is wrong. It’s better to share open questions and ask for the other person’s reaction. You might say, for example, “I understand that you think this is my fault, but I think you made more mistakes than I did. What do you think?”
  • Ask open-ended questions. For example, instead of asking “Were you trying to do A or B?” ask “What were you trying to do?” Phrasing questions this way will allow the other person broad latitude in how to answer so that he or she is not biased by the options you offer.
  • Ask for more concrete information. Asking this way helps to clarify where the other person’s conclusions came from. For example, you could ask “What leads you to say that?” “Can you give me an example?” “How could that work?”
  • Make it safer for the other person not to answer. Sometimes your questions may provoke defensiveness, even if you have a genuine desire to learn. It’s better to make your question an invitation rather than a demand. If the other person declines to respond right away, give him or her more time and he or she may come back to your question later. Doing so allows a greater sense of safety and builds trust between you.

Paraphrase for clarity. Paraphrasing is when you express to the other person, in your own words, your understanding of what he or she is saying. There are two major benefits of paraphrasing:

  • It checks your understanding. Misunderstandings are more common in conversations than you think. Paraphrasing gives you a chance to check your understanding and gives the other person the chance to say, “No, that’s not quite what I meant. What I really meant was….”
  • It shows that you’ve heard. If you notice that the other person begins to repeat himself or herself, then you should paraphrase more. He or she is doing it because there is no indication that you’ve actually listened to what he or she has said. Once other people feel heard, they are significantly more likely to listen to you.

Acknowledge the other person’s feelings. An acknowledgement is simply any indication that you are trying to understand the emotional content of what the other person is saying.

  • Why acknowledge? When we talk with the other person, we are not only exchanging facts and opinions, but also feelings. Attached to each feeling is a set of invisible questions: “Are my feelings all right?” “Do you care about me?” By acknowledging the other person’s feelings, you can assure him or her that the answer to each question is “yes.”
  • How to acknowledge. Take time to indicate that you understand the other person’s feelings. For example, he or she might say “I’m confused by the fact that you lied to me.” Instead of replying “Well, it won’t happen again” or “I should explain that I didn’t lie,” you can acknowledge the feeling by saying “It sounds like you’re really upset” or “If I were in your shoes, I’d probably feel confused too.” Sometimes you can also acknowledge the other person with a simple nod, a smile, or by the look in your eyes.
  • Acknowledge before solving the problem. It is important to acknowledge the other person’s feelings before jumping to problem-solving. Otherwise, you may think you’ve “solved” the problem, but you actually have not addressed the invisible questions.
  • Acknowledging is not agreeing. You may worry about how you are going to acknowledge the other person’s feelings when you don’t agree with him or her. The key is to distinguish between the facts and emotions in the content. You may disagree with the facts of what he or she is saying but still acknowledge the importance of the feelings. For example, you can say something like “I understand you are …., but I disagree with what you said.”